At Jody Wilson-Raybould’s first major public speech as the new federal government’s minister of justice, she invoked the concept of balance, referring to it in her traditional life, but primarily in the context of law and government. She used the scale as a symbol of her thoughts on the Liberal government’s direction. And she was quite open about her traditional upbringing, her ambitions, and her mission in her new undertaking — a job that has existed since Confederation, but never before been presided over by an Indigenous woman.
Speaking in Vancouver on Jan. 23, as part of a Simon Fraser University series on women and policy, Wilson-Raybould painted a picture of the day she was sworn in to Parliament, when she began a surreal journey as Canada’s first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney general.
The paradox was not lost on her. In her swearing-in speech, she said, “Someone who not so long ago would not have been able to vote, let alone run for office, nor be recognized legally as [both] an Indian and a lawyer, someone whom the law discriminates against, and in some cases still does, and who fought against that law for many years, is now the principal lawyer in charge of administering that very law on behalf of that very nation [Canada] and advising its government.”
‘A question of power, and who exercises it’
As a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, Wilson-Raybould was the B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. She carries the traditional Kwak’wala name Puglaas (“woman born to noble people”) and holds a special traditional role.
“In my system I am Hiligaxste’,” she said, explaining that she was instructed by her grandmother. “One of my jobs is to lead the Hamat'sa or the chiefs into the big house.”
“The Hiligaxste’ can be defined as one who corrects the chiefs’ path,” she added, stirring a slow laughter in the audience. “We show them the way.”
Wilson-Raybould, formerly a Crown prosecutor for B.C., knows there’s something to be said about an Indigenous person acting as the state’s representative. After mentioning “the Crown,” she cheekily said “me” with a smile, acknowledging the complications her new role creates with regards to her identity. First Nations people, she said, had approached her on the street, crying or excitedly hugging her as they offered congratulations or divulged personal troubles to the first Indigenous community member they have known to reach such a position of power.
This power she has assumed is the same power that has been withheld from Aboriginal peoples in Canadian courts and at negotiating tables. Faced with numerous questions from the audience, mostly from First Nations people wanting access to her and her newfound power, Wilson-Raybould did not shy away.
“The colonial experience has not been easy for Aboriginal peoples, and I now want to turn to this history and talk about power imbalance.” She recalled a speech given by her father, First Nations leader Bill Wilson, to Pierre Trudeau at a 1983 Constitutional conference on native issues, where he had said, “It has now become, all of sudden, a question of power and who exercises it.”
For Wilson-Raybould, the courts have made clear where that power lies, affirming that Aboriginal people have the right of self-government. Quoting a court, the minister said the powers of self-government are “one of the unwritten ‘underlined values’ of the Constitution” and are “not absolute but they are very real.”
“Reconciliation is now possible precisely because section 35 [of the Constitution Act] is not an empty box. The negotiation table is being leveled. There is less power imbalance.”
As the minister concluded her remarks, student volunteers scoured the crowd with microphones, conscientiously allowing Indigenous people with their hands raised high to pose questions. Some were activists, wanting an inquiry into the 1995 Gustafsen paramilitary operation. Wilson-Raybould listened and tried her best to talk about her portfolio, from the perspectives of an individual and a member of the Liberal government. She said she would look at a letter of request for an inquiry sent to her in December. She repeated it three times, in fact: she would do her best to look into it.
Wilson-Raybould’s gentle nature contrasted with the other personalities on stage with her. The speaker who had introduced her, a director of the university, told someone in the audience who asked about gentrification in the Downtown Eastside question that the question was “inappropriate.” But what I was most disturbed by came at the end of the event, when SFU’s head of communications leaned over to the event coordinator and asked, “Well, did you charge a fee for this event?” After receiving a response in the negative, he said, “If you had charged a fee, then these people would not have come.”
Would they not have been able to enter, as they could not afford the tickets? I was disgusted at the prospect of using a fee system to weed out Indigenous grassroots figures from a public feminist forum designed for all community members.
I passed by the SFU director at the end of the event, as he walked arrogantly over to three elected band chiefs and announced in his “old stock” way, “Chiefs! Nice to see you!” with handshakes ensuing. “It’s a pity when native politics get brought into these events,” he said, directing a wink to the other men in the boys’ club, who laughed awkwardly.
Reconciliation in ‘multi-level governance’
Many in the crowd seemed to focus on the protesters asking questions, rather than the issue of the day, which Wilson-Raybould framed with one sentence.
She had tried to emphasize Canada’s “next big question that needs to be answered: namely, whose laws apply to the title lands so proven and how will they be governed?”
The answer, she said, is “multi-level governance, a combination of Indigenous, provincial, and federal law.”
The minister conjured a vision of a future where a balance is found between the law and policy of Indigenous peoples and that of Canada, a precarious balance that we as a country have yet to really achieve.
I waited for selfies to be taken and a few more hugs to be had before approaching Wilson-Raybould to ask what Indigenous governance could look like in a country that deals out lowest-common-denominator, boiler-template treaties.
“It’s different depending on what nation you are working with,” said the minister. “I recognize there are challenges with the B.C. treaty process. I am working with the minister of Indigenous affairs in that regard. I am looking at the so-called comprehensive claims policy, but there are lots of different ways where and how we can reconcile.”
“Our government is committed to a reconciliation framework that respects nations that want to engage in comprehensive negotiations. Create the space, potentially for Indigenous people that want to be self-governing, but bottom line is that it is respectful, that it is based on a nation-to-nation level of recognition and of respect, and ensure that reconciliation is done jointly. It is going to vary across the country. It is going to be different for each community.”
‘Part of the system now’
After the event, when the coordinators, minders, and protective service agents had exited the building, I mingled with a few stragglers. I ran into Larry Nicholson, a Cree writer, who was deliberating on the event with a friend. I asked what he thought of Wilson-Raybould.
“Do you think she is representing the Crown?” I asked.
“I don’t know how you can’t. That is one of the top three to four most important jobs in the country, as far as I am concerned. Is she realistically going to be able to do a traditional/grassroots approach? Probably not,” he said.
“They want to go in and restore the balance — well that is great and fine, but I think we want justice and that is what some of these ladies [First Nations audience members] were talking about. I thought there would be more community people [here]. I am surprised that there were hardly any — not to put her in her place, but [for] the questions. Community people do not need to understand all the mechanisms of politics and all of that. We have a person now in place and so people want justice, right?”
When asked about Wilson-Raybould’s position, Nicholson responded he’s of two minds. “On the symbolic or the philosophical side, I think it is great that someone like her has obtained that high of an office. The Cree me? I think it is done. In her mind it is done. She is part of the system now, part of the big machine. Everything that I heard in today’s presentation comes from that standpoint.”
As for whether Wilson-Raybould will actually bring in the change that we keep hearing about from the Liberal government?
“Well, I’m hopeful, but I’m skeptical, and I don’t know if I am more skeptical than hopeful.”
Wilson-Raybould’s debut event is a prelude of what is to come for her in the four years ahead.
Behind the scenes, many players were managing the event and wrangling the “undesirables” that she cannot deal with directly. Her own Indigenous people reached out to her about their battles, while the curators of the series on women and policy relied on her to identify as a feminist first, who has fought against patriarchy. There were those in the audience who expected her to represent the Crown entirely and completely, along with those constituents and fellow native people who expected her to fully represent them and respond to their struggles within all levels of government and the law.
This is just the beginning of an unprecedented journey. Not one of our Indigenous people has made it to this level before, and if it is to be anything like Wilson-Raybould says it will be, it will have to be about balance. Everyone can gain a little esteem and hopefully a few victories from some sort of balance within the most important legal job of the country, if only that balance is even for everyone.