Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai First Nation on Vancouver Island, at a ceremony at the 2019 First Nations Justice Council in Richmond, B.C. Photo: Jonathan Hayward /GettyImages
Indian in the Cabinet
In her political memoir, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould explains the Indigenous values and principles that shaped her life / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / October 7th, 2021
Jody Wilson-Raybould wants to be remembered for her accomplishments as an Indigenous and federal politician, not for the SNC-Lavalin affair that led to her resignation from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, and her new book is a testament to her achievements.
For someone who has been under intense scrutiny since stepping onto the national political stage in 2014, Wilson-Raybould is relaxed, personable and remarkably open in a recent phone call from her home in Vancouver to talk about Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power.
“I’ve always thought about writing of my experiences, but never confirmed the decision until – like all of us being shut in during COVID – having the extra time and being more reflective,” said Raybould, who was the Independent MP for Vancouver Grenville until she decided not to run in the 2021 election.
Where her 2019 book, From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, is a compilation of her political speeches, this time around, it’s personal.
“I was very reticent at the beginning to speak about my life, my upbringing and my teachings – you know, the more personal elements of it,” she said. “I wanted to tell my experience in government, but I knew that in order to tell my story, I had to inject that into it.”
She began writing reflections in her journals. Initially, she had no intention of publishing them, but as she wrote, the importance of sharing her story surfaced. “I was taught that we need to speak up and tell our experiences.”
She clearly states her book is a political memoir, not a tell-all about SNC-Lavalin. Rather, it’s a thoughtful, detailed telling of its context within her life, and how her upbringing and the teachings of the Eagle Clan of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples of northern Vancouver Island helped her navigate it.
Before delving into her personal story, Wilson-Raybould sets the stage with a prologue about the days immediately following The Globe and Mail article uncovering allegations of attempted political interference by the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister’s Office, to influence her as minister of justice and attorney general to intervene in an ongoing criminal case against Quebec-based construction company SNC-Lavalin.
With that out of the way, Wilson-Raybould goes back to her beginnings to take the reader on a guided tour of how she made her way from Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island, to Parliament Hill.
Born in Vancouver in 1971 to Sandra, a non-Indigenous teacher, and Bill Wilson, the hereditary Chief of the Eagle Clan and a First Nations leader, her parents separated when she was young. Her father’s absences due to his advocacy work meant that she and Kory, her older sister, spent quality time with his mother, who also lived in Comox.
“As I wrote, I realized how impacted and close I was to my grandmother, and I began structuring the book around her, teachings.”
Her grandmother Ethel, also known as Pugladee, was a residential school survivor and Clan matriarch who hosted five potlatches – gatherings that are part ceremony, part celebration and part name-giving and gift-giving by the host – in her lifetime. It was at one of these potlatches Wilson-Raybould received her traditional name, Puglaas, meaning “woman born to noble people,” when she was five.
“She had to do these [potlatches] in the background, out of sight, because they were illegal,” Wilson-Raybould explained. “In order to maintain our culture, she did so much behind the scenes.”
“Our culture is matriarchal,” she continued. “The Indian Act – which is still on the books much in the same manner as it was in 1876 – turned our leaderships and ways of being on their heads. We went from a place where everybody in our community had a role to play to having everything determined for us through a patriarchal view.”
From a young age, the importance of responsibility and improving the Indigenous way of life was instilled in Wilson-Raybould. “My sister and I would sometimes be dragged to meetings when we wanted to be out playing with our friends. We were taken and told to sit and listen and learn.”
As a result, the values of inclusion, equality, and achieving justice have always been something Wilson-Raybould held in her heart and head. “That foundation has always carried me through,” she said. “I’m so grateful and proud to be an Indigenous person.”
Having been raised to be a leader, going to law school was a given for the work Wilson-Raybould wanted to do in her community. Her father was the second Indigenous lawyer to graduate from the University of British Columbia’s law school in 1973. Following his lead, she graduated from his alma mater in 1999, alongside her sister Kory and award-wining Five Little Indians writer Michelle Good.
After articling, she became a provincial Crown prosecutor, then moved into First Nations politics as a staff adviser for the British Columbia Treaty Commission in 2003. Nine months later, when she was elected as a commissioner (eventually serving as acting chief commissioner), Wilson-Raybould had no illusions about the difficulties inherent in this new work. Her dad taught her that if she knew what change was needed, she must relentlessly pursue it in a “principled and coherent manner” and find allies while she’s at it. This good counsel helped establish her as a strong leader in her own right outside of being Bill Wilson’s daughter.
In 2009, she was elected councillor of the We Wai Kai, the First Nation at Cape Mudge on Vancouver Island (where she is a member and owns a home) and regional chief for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN). Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin was impressed by a speech she gave at a BCAFN assembly in 2011 and mentioned her to Justin Trudeau, who was looking for new recruits.
In the summer of 2013, after winning the Liberal leadership, Trudeau travelled to the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Whitehorse to personally ask Wilson-Raybould to run as a Liberal candidate in the next federal election. Flattered, she told him she’d think about it.
And then the whirlwind began.
Within months of meeting Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould was being touted as a top candidate. After signing on, she was given her choice of ridings, and decided to run in newly created Vancouver Granville, which she won in the 2015 election. She was then appointed to the highest position ever held by an Indigenous politician in federal politics, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada.
Wilson-Raybould’s writing mirrors her conversational style, which is flowing and informative. Despite her timidness about personal disclosures, these sections of the book are the most engaging. When the writing shifts to the federal government, the narrative is weighed down by procedural explanations. Transcripts of key incidents – including the conversation about SNC between Wilson-Raybould and Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada, Michael Wernick, as well as the three oaths of her swearing-in ceremony requiring her allegiance to the Queen – are included verbatim, so they can speak for themselves. “I was taught that words matter,” Wilson-Raybould said, “and to choose them wisely.”
This teaching was paramount when choosing the book’s title. Like her fellow law-school graduate, Michelle Good, Wilson-Raybould wanted the deep racism in her story on the cover.
“I came to Ottawa with all my lived experience, the values and principles I’ve held my entire life, and being a proud Indigenous person. I believed I was being appointed because of my worldview, because of that experience, because diversity actually matters. I still truly believe that,” she said. “As the years went by, I realized I was seen as an Indian in the true sense of the word, as described in the Indian Act.
“It doesn’t matter what table you sit around, you can still experience marginalization and racialized and gendered terms. I’ve fought my entire life to move away from the Indian Act and being treated as a second-class citizen, and this is what I experienced when I sat around the cabinet table.”
Because Wilson-Raybould was steeped in Indigenous politics, partisanship was a foreign concept. Very quickly she learned that toeing the party line – and achieving and maintaining power – trumped making decisions that best served Canadians.
One of the more challenging aspects of writing the book was gaining a new perspective on the hopefulness she experienced during her initial meetings with Trudeau. “I deeply believed that he would ‘do politics differently,’” she said. “So the question I have for myself is: How was it that I was not able to see the real person when I believed that back then?”
Now at peace with the reality, she understands many were galvanized by the wave of positivity leading up to the 2015 election. Many of those people are still part of the Liberal party.
“I keep in contact with some of those people … so there is that belief that things can be different, that we can operate in a different manner… as human beings and as human beings in a political environment. That still makes me hopeful even though the person that I thought was beating that hope was not who he presented, or who he became.”
The recent discoveries of mass graves at residential schools across the country has heightened awareness of the horrors of colonialism. While Wilson-Raybould acknowledges there are more allies now than ever, for her everything goes back to the communitarian perspective she was raised on, where words were followed with action.
“I’d rather have substance over symbolism in terms of having action address these issues,” she said. “I think that will come, but it will come by Canadians pushing the dial even more, and not necessarily from our political leaders. So yeah, there’s hope.”
What’s next for Wilson-Raybould? While various work offers have come her way, she’s not rushing any decisions. “I’m going to continue to speak up… to advocate, but I’m going to take my time to figure out the best place for me to use my voice.”