Jody Wilson-Raybould’s vision to save Canada

Inside Wilson-Raybould’s push to rebuild this country’s relationship with Indigenous people

Photograph by Grant Harder

On social media, where she recently sparked serious controversy, Jody Wilson-Raybould is known by her Twitter handle, @Puglaas. That’s the federal justice minister’s name in Kwak’wala, the language of the First Nations who live at the north end of Vancouver Island, a few smaller islands and the nearby mainland. When she was a little girl, Wilson-Raybould’s paternal grandmother named her at a ceremony in the “Big House” on Gilford Island, a communal cedar building that is the centrepiece of a historic shoreline village.

Remembering that day in a recent interview, Wilson-Raybould, 46, paints quite a picture. An open-beamed room with four big posts. Men seated along one side, drumming. At the front, the chief and her grandmother, who is hosting the potlatch. Women wearing their button blankets (Wilson-Raybould’s features an eagle, her clan crest). Carved masks on display, along with “coppers,” the hammered copper shields that are traditional symbols of family status. Jody, who is five years old, and her sister, who is six, dance for their names. Puglaas is a good one, translating as “woman born of noble people.”

Set against that timeless tableau, the Twitter uproar @Puglaas set off, together with @JustinTrudeau, on Feb. 9 seems to come from a different life and maybe planet. That evening, a Saskatchewan jury found Gerald Stanley, a 56-year-old white farmer, not guilty in the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man. Stanley had testified that his handgun fired accidentally, shooting Boushie in the head at close range, after Boushie and four friends from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation drove onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.

Wilson-Raybould and her husband were out to dinner in Ottawa when the verdict came down. They got back to their condo, just west of Parliament Hill, to find the story all over the TV news. She talked on the phone with the Prime Minister, who was in Los Angeles at the end of a U.S. speaking tour. “Just spoke with @Puglaas,” Trudeau quickly tweeted. “I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow the Boushie family is feeling tonight.”

READ: The Gerald Stanley verdict is a terrifying blow to reconciliation

And Wilson-Raybould, from her smartphone in her bedroom, with zero input from her aides, responded: “Thank you PM @JustinTrudeau . . . As a country we can and must do better—I am committed to working every day to ensure justice for all Canadians.”

The backlash was fierce and stern. Opposition politicians and many legal experts, including the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, slammed Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould for undermining the justice system by signalling that they thought the jury got it wrong.

For her part, Wilson-Raybould insists she was commenting broadly on how Indigenous people fare with police and in the courts, not narrowly on the Stanley verdict. She met later with Boushie’s family. “Their only ask, if you can call it an ask, was to build relationships,” Wilson-Raybould says.

Still, she had drawn her first barrage of serious criticism as justice minister, after sustaining no discernible political damage while managing policies as sensitive as marijuana legalization and physician-assisted death over the past two years. Perhaps it was inevitable that Wilson-Raybould would be plunged into rougher political waters over her unique position on First Nations issues, where she has so much more riding than on any other policy file.

* * *

Jody Wilson-Raybould at Potlatch with her Grandmother. (Courtesy of Jody Wilson-Raybould)

More than just a burnished memory, her account of getting her name is part of a life story in which the personal underpins the political. Her childhood immersion in potlatch culture blended into year-round family discussion of B.C.’s volatile Indigenous politics. An early stint as a courtroom lawyer in Vancouver, then several years of intensive work on treaty negotiations, laid the foundations for her rise as a breakthrough Indigenous politician.

Before Trudeau recruited her as a star federal Liberal candidate, Wilson-Raybould co-authored an ambitious, exhaustive blueprint for how Indigenous communities might take control of their own affairs. And now, the fully formed vision she brought to Ottawa is proving instrumental in shaping Trudeau’s bid to succeed where past prime ministers have failed so miserably—in transforming the relationship between the federal government and First Nations.

Wilson-Raybould was born in Vancouver in 1971. Her mother, Sandra Wilson, a non-Indigenous teacher, separated from her father, the fiery First Nations leader Bill Wilson, before she can remember. Wilson-Raybould was raised by her mother, largely in Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island, not far from the villages of her father’s Kwakwaka’wakw people. She says her parents stayed on good terms. Every spring and summer, along with her older sister, she would go on what she calls “the potlatch circuit.”

Wilson-Raybould describes potlatches as a combination of party, ceremony and gift-giving by the host. (Her grandmother, Ethel Pearson, hosted five in her life, including the one during which Wilson-Raybould was named.) There’s more to them even than that, though. “It’s our system of government,” she says. “And it’s where people get married. It’s where territory is transferred by virtue of the passage of names. It’s where men become chiefs. It’s where people atone for wrongdoings. So going to potlatch, it’s incredibly cultural and spiritual.”

But Wilson-Raybould’s grounding in tradition came alongside an education in the less ceremonial, more contemporary side of First Nations politics. Bill Wilson, now 73, graduated from the University of British Columbia’s law school in 1973, becoming only the province’s second Indigenous lawyer. Established as a B.C. First Nations leader by the early 1980s, Wilson vaulted to national significance by helping prod then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau into enshrining “Aboriginal and treaty rights” in his 1982 constitutional reforms.

There’s a CBC video clip from a 1983 conference on what were then called “native issues” in Ottawa, in which Wilson tells Trudeau he has two daughters at home on Vancouver Island, and both aspire to be lawyers and prime minister. “Tell them I’ll stick around till they’re ready,” Trudeau says. He and Wilson look to be thoroughly enjoying each other’s showmanship.

And, like Pierre Trudeau, Wilson had edge. In fact, he still does. Last spring, he took to Facebook to denounce the troubled National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as “a bloody farce,” telling the commissioners, “It’s time for you all to resign.” Wilson-Raybould had to put out a statement saying she hadn’t spoken with him about the inquiry, which has the Trudeau government’s backing.

READ: Inside the meltdown of Canada’s MMIW inquiry

“I would say I’m a bit more diplomatic than my father is,” she says. “He has been incredibly provocative. I think the way he engages and creates stirs actually promotes conversation.” She says they “share the same values and beliefs,” but part company on style. “My dad loved the spotlight, loved talking to reporters, particularly when there were cameras there. I’m the exact opposite.”

Any reticence, though, shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of drive. After following her father’s path by graduating from UBC’s law school in 1999, Wilson-Raybould worked for a few years as a Crown prosecutor on Vancouver’s infamously drug-plagued Downtown Eastside. She prosecuted a lot of young, urban Indigenous defendants, some for stealing food from grocery stores. Addiction treatment was inadequate, affordable housing scarce. “There was nothing that, as a prosecutor, we could substantively do,” she says.

She relished the courtroom atmosphere, but never lost sight of her plan to eventually move on into First Nations politics. Her entry point was the B.C. Treaty Commission, which oversees negotiation of modern treaties between First Nations and the federal and provincial governments. She arrived as a staff adviser, was quickly elected a commissioner, and ended up serving as acting chief commissioner.

Insiders soon realized that Bill Wilson’s daughter wasn’t a typical novice. “She knew all the chiefs and leadership and knew a lot of the issues,” recalls Robert Phillips, who overlapped with her at the treaty commission and is now an elected member of an umbrella group called the First Nations Summit. “So I saw her right away as a born leader, sort of a take-charge kind of person.”

In 2008, she married Tim Raybould, who is non-Indigenous but has worked for decades as a consultant to First Nations groups, notably as the Westbank First Nation’s chief negotiator when the band, in B.C.’s Okanagan region, was hammering out a landmark self-government deal that took effect in 2005. Born in Vancouver but raised in England, Raybould has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in social anthropology and is now a professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal.

In 2009, Wilson-Raybould took two key steps. She was elected councillor of We Wai Kai, the First Nation at Cape Mudge on Vancouver Island, where she’s a member and owns a home, and as regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. It took her three ballots to capture the BCAFN’s top job in a tight vote, but she was re-elected with a landslide margin in 2012.

By then, she had made her mark, partly by easing strains among the province’s often-fractious 200-plus bands. She was also willing to take on jobs that didn’t obviously raise her public profile, like chairing an innovative body called the First Nations Finance Authority, which offers First Nations access to long-term loans at lower interest rates. Most importantly, she co-authored, with Raybould, a doorstop of a document called the BCAFN Governance Toolkit: A Guide to Nation Building.

Weighing in at an intimidating 805 pages in its most recent edition, the Toolkit isn’t easy to summarize. Its starting point is dissatisfaction with the way B.C. First Nations—like about 400 other reserve communities across Canada—must operate under the outdated rules of the old federal Indian Act. The Toolkit methodically surveys the options for any First Nation that wants to negotiate self-government, including taking over jurisdictions, setting up a new administration and conducting community consultations.

Debate about next steps for First Nations is often littered with sweeping generalizations and purely rhetorical declarations. With the Toolkit, Wilson-Raybould armed herself with precision. It didn’t go unnoticed.

* * *

In late June 2011, Wilson-Raybould was speaking on governance at a BCAFN assembly in Richmond, B.C., when Paul Martin, the former Liberal prime minister and finance minister, slipped into a chair at the back. Martin has devoted himself since retiring from politics largely to promoting better First Nations education, and was scheduled to speak later.

He was glad he got there early. “I mean, it was a brilliant exposition,” Martin says. “The best talk on governance I’ve ever heard.” Later, he and Wilson-Raybould spoke at length. Martin says he mostly asked questions and listened. He left with a copy of the Toolkit, which he describes as “thick as a brick, a stupendous thing,” for reading on his flight home to Montreal.

After that, Wilson-Raybould says Martin’s mentorship grew to become an important factor in her life. He admires her systematic way of framing a policy challenge and proposing a solution. “When you sit down with Jody to talk about the issues—and Tim Raybould is, by the way, the same—she comes right to the point,” Martin says. “She’s thought it through, and basically says, ‘This is what I think we should do.’ ”

Martin began raising her name in Liberal circles, including with Justin Trudeau. After Trudeau won the party’s leadership in the spring of 2013, he launched a recruitment push that brought political newcomers—and future top cabinet ministers like Bill Morneau and Jane Philpott—into the fold. That summer, he travelled to Whitehorse, where the Assembly of First Nations was meeting, mainly to reach out personally to the B.C. regional chief who had so impressed Martin.

At Whitehorse’s modest conference centre, Trudeau listened to Wilson-Raybould speak at an AFN session on land claims. Then they retreated, just the two of them, to a small room in the adjacent hotel. Wilson-Raybould says they discussed values, vision, and how their fathers had productively butted heads in the early ’80s. “We talked about it, that this is an interesting world, how things have come full circle, and now we’re having this conversation that our fathers started,” she says. “And he asked me if I would run, and I didn’t say yes. I was, of course, flattered.”

Within a few months, Wilson-Raybould was being showcased as a top draft pick in Trudeau’s rebuild of the Liberal team. Before even signing a party membership card, she co-chaired a key Liberal policy conference in Montreal in 2014. That summer, nobody challenged her for the Liberal nomination in the newly created Vancouver Granville riding. She won the seat handily in the 2015 election.

After Trudeau’s election triumph, speculation swirled that he might name her the first Indigenous minister of Indigenous affairs. Instead, he made Wilson-Raybould minister of justice and attorney general of Canada—traditionally ranked around Ottawa, along with Finance and Foreign Affairs, as among the most prestigious cabinet portfolios. No Indigenous politician had ever risen that high in federal politics.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, Wednesday Nov.4, 2015 in Ottawa. (ADRIAN WYLD/AFP/Getty Images)

There would be no easing into the job. Working to a deadline set by the Supreme Court of Canada in its 2015 decision striking down the law against doctors helping their patients die, Wilson-Raybould had to fill the gap fast. She tabled legislation in the spring of 2016 to limit medically assisted suicide to competent adults suffering “grievous and irremediable” sickness and whose death was “reasonably foreseeable.” The compromise remains controversial.

As well, much of the burden of making good on Trudeau’s signature campaign pledge to legalize and regulate marijuana fell to Wilson-Raybould. Last spring, she introduced a bill that offsets legalization with get-tough measures, such as creating a new offence, with a penalty of up to 14 years in prison, for using a youth to commit a cannabis-related crime. Through much of 2017, she led consultations aimed at key criminal law reforms, expected to be unveiled as early as this month.

In its final weeks, that reform push was overshadowed by Stanley’s acquittal, and then, on Feb. 22, the not-guilty verdict handed down in Winnipeg in the second-degree murder trial of Raymond Cormier, who was charged in the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body, wrapped in a duvet cover, was found in Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014. Outrage among First Nations leaders over those two cases has put intense pressure on Wilson-Raybould to deliver changes to the way Indigenous people are treated in the justice system. She is taking a hard look, for instance, at the so-called “peremptory challenge” rule that allowed defence lawyers to reject all potential jurors who looked Indigenous from serving on the jury in Stanley’s trial.

All that adds up to a daunting workload for Wilson-Raybould, and potentially a major policy legacy. But her influence on Trudeau’s high-stakes Indigenous rights recognition agenda, if it pans out, is arguably even more significant. Even though Trudeau has Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on the job, Wilson-Raybould’s role is central.

Last summer, it was the justice minister who released a list of the 10 principles that will guide the Liberal government’s attempt to reboot Ottawa’s relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The first principle: “All relations with Indigenous peoples need to be based on the recognition and implementation of their right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government.” For those who knew about the Toolkit, the detailed, systematic approach behind the 10 principles was more than familiar.

Then, in February, Trudeau gave a major speech in the House announcing the start of consultations toward passing into law what he called a “framework” for recognizing Indigenous rights. Again, the approach and language seemed to come straight from the Toolkit, where Wilson-Raybould had emphasized in the preface the need to “establish the legal and political framework for implementing First Nations governance.”

But “framework” isn’t exactly a self-explanatory word. The problem it aims to solve is how First Nations that are fed up with being governed under the reviled Indian Act must embark on lengthy negotiations with Ottawa, and often end up going to court to settle disputes that arise in the bargaining. In the end, the federal cabinet must separately approve each deal.

The framework would, in theory, speed up and clarify the process. For example, Wilson-Raybould says it will probably set out that a First Nation can decide who its citizens are and devise its own governing institutions, while in other areas—likely including policing and education—discussions with the federal government will still be needed.

Not all First Nations leaders like the sound of the extensive consultations Trudeau said must go into finalizing the framework. Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said, “We’ve been down this path before,” citing past efforts to shake up the status quo, from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations. “We need a government that will not impose any more of their ideas,” Dumas said, “but will support First Nations to direct our own futures.”

If there’s an underexamined essential element in Trudeau’s approach, it’s that First Nations must reorganize themselves to take on more powers under his proposed framework. There are more than 600 bands in Canada, limited in what they can and can’t do by the Indian Act. But most are too small for full self-government to be practical. “I actually think this is the most important thing,” Wilson-Raybould says, describing the prospect of bands across Canada reorganizing themselves into larger groupings, better able to run everything from education to economic development, as “pretty powerful.”

She points to her own Kwak’wala-speaking people, broken up by the Indian Act for federal administrative purposes into 15 separate, small bands. “In order to fully exercise our rights over the lands and resources,” Wilson-Raybould says, “we’re going to—and this is where the hard work is—have to reconstitute ourselves.” It’s a vision rooted in the Toolkit author’s study of governance, but also in a little girl’s summers on the potlatch circuit, where she learned what still binds those separate communities together.

That mix of lawyerly expertise and lived experience could be crucial if talk of reconciliation between the federal government and Indigenous peoples is to be turned into tangible progress. Wilson-Raybould’s place in the history of First Nations politics is secured already by how far she’s come to reach the office she holds. What’s left to discover is how far she can go in using it to usher in change.

CORRECTION, Feb. 4, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the “coppers” displayed at a naming ceremony. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, they are “pieces of copper hammered into the shape of a shield… often decorated with crests and designs,” and are among the most valued items at potlatch ceremonies.


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