This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's March 2020 issue.
Jody Wilson-Raybould walks onstage to a warm, roaring standing ovation from dozens of female Indigenous leaders gathered at a British Columbia Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN) women in leadership event in Richmond earlier this year.
“We come from an oral culture. And if you do not speak the truth, then your culture dies,” shared the independent member of Parliament for Vancouver-Granville.
“I come from a long line of matriarchs, and that’s what gave me strength to do what I needed to do,” she said. “The strength that we have as Indigenous Peoples, and particularly as Indigenous women, is that we show the way. We guide the path. We guide chiefs. That’s my role in the Big House. And that’s what’s carried me through this last tumultuous year.”
Tumultuous. That is the word Wilson-Raybould says most appropriately describes her past year.
“It was tumultuous because I navigated something that wasn’t of my own making and something that was very public. I went from the front benches as a senior minister of the Crown on a very public journey to the far reaches of the corner of the House of Commons, sitting as an independent,” she tells BIV Magazine.
“I started 2018 as the Minister of Justice and we all know where I finished it off.”
A little over a year ago, Wilson-Raybould delivered what was described by many as “damning” testimony to Canada’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. It made headlines around the world and consumed airtime and print space at home for days.
“For a period of approximately four months between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”
Her opening line was followed by a four-and-a-half-hour account that detailed, from her perspective, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s interference with Canada’s prosecution authority.
The event was preceded by Wilson-Raybould’s shuffle out of her role as minister of justice and attorney general weeks before.
“It started immediately, the day that I was shuffled to Veterans Affairs,” Wilson-Raybould tells BIV Magazine.
“I knew immediately and I was prepared for the reality of what might come.”
But the media circus, the speculation, the smear campaigns and her expulsion from the Liberal caucus were nonetheless challenging.
“It was very public. It was very challenging for my husband, for my family, particularly my mother, who felt a sense of helplessness watching it all,” she says.
“I resigned from cabinet and the prime minister alone made the decision to eject me from the Liberal caucus and to eject me from being the already confirmed Liberal candidate in Vancouver-Granville. And at that point, I had a choice. I could have walked away,” she laughs, “or continued and ran.
“I feel OK with the record. There are parts of it that are ridiculous, completely untrue. Spiteful.”
She quotes Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s always the right time to do the right thing, and I know I was confident I was doing the right thing and that I was speaking my truth and acting as I think every public servant should – with integrity.”
Wilson-Raybould sits onstage at the BCAFN women in leadership dialogue session with a microphone she barely uses. She makes a few quick introductory remarks. The setting may have suggested she was there to talk; in reality, she was there to listen. One at a time, audience members took turns at their own microphones to thank her, to share their stories, to talk about leadership and to share a moment with the former BCAFN regional chief who became – and perhaps still is – the most talked-about woman in Canadian politics.
Offstage, Wilson-Raybould signs copies of her book, From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, published in September 2019. She takes selfies and photos and listens some more.
“I really am a bit uncomfortable talking about myself,” she admits in a one-on-one interview near the end of the conference.
She also shares that she received thousands of letters from constituents and Canadians over the course of her tumultuous year.
“It dramatically impacted me in terms of the positive responses,” Wilson-Raybould says. She learned she’s “kind of tough,” she says with a laugh. She learned a lot about politics and political personalities and blind loyalty, a term she repeats throughout the interview.
“I went through a whole series of reflections and it was never clear that I was going to run again. I mean I found myself in a place where I could never have anticipated being,” she says. “Ultimately the decision to run again, if I can boil it down, was I didn’t feel that any one person could determine my longevity in federal politics.”
As an independent candidate, Wilson-Raybould’s second term as a member of Parliament will be different. She says there are pros and cons – but mostly pros – to being non-partisan in what she calls “hyper-partisan” politics.
The cons include less power to effect change. Wilson-Raybould drew No. 78 in the private member’s bill lottery, which she says generally means she will be about two years into her term before she has an opportunity to bring new legislation forward. By comparison, she passed 14 pieces of legislation as minister of justice.
But the issues are still the issues, and Wilson-Raybould’s passion for them remains. As an independent, she has an opportunity to work across party lines to bring bills forward, and it’s one she plans to seize.
“The electorate here, I think, sent a pretty strong message to Ottawa that ... the way we do politics right now is not the way that it should always be done. That we should actually have more representative democracy,” she explains. “The opportunity to work across party lines as an independent not constrained by the central control that exists within political parties – I mean I only know one political party and there was a huge amount of control in the centre – gives you the ability to talk to people and understand what they want and get support for legislation that you want to advance. Which is what I’m going to do.”
Social justice, democratic reform and Indigenous issues remain priorities for Wilson-Raybould, who says her focus is on doing a good job as an independent, and not on her political future.
She’s interested in working with members of the Senate on bringing forward public members’ bills. Criminal justice reform around mandatory minimum sentences is an area of interest for Wilson-Raybould, who earned her law degree from the University of British Columbia.
When asked about what she would like her legacy in politics to look like, reconciliation is front of mind.
“I would love to play a role in creating that space for the transformative change of Indigenous nations within this country. That is the biggest passion of why I got involved in mainstream politics in the first place, and I was hopeful it would happen in the previous government. But if I can play some role in opening that door, that would be a pretty amazing part of somebody’s legacy.”
She is clear that in addition to truth telling and healing, reconciliation requires laws and processes to change, and that that necessarily requires the political will to change them. That pace of change has been incredibly slow, she says. But she’s hopeful it will change, just as she’s hopeful the political landscape in Canada will change as well.
“I was raised from a very young age to be a leader and to contribute my skills to issues that are important and to help advance quality of life for our people. I come from a communitarian culture, which means that everybody has a role to play,” she says, including independent members of Parliament in the far reaches of the corner of the House of Commons.
“If I have a leadership style, it is one of trying to build consensus where possible. It is incredibly hard and it takes a lot of time, but it’s always in the background of who I am.”
Wilson-Raybould says she’s been toying with when to write her memoir. She’s settled on writing two books. One will chronicle her time as Canada’s minister of justice. The second will simply be a memoir.
Whether Wilson-Raybould will or should or could become prime minister one day follows the Vancouver-Granville representative to events and interviews like a shadow. A video of her father, Indigenous leader Bill Wilson, telling then prime minister Pierre Trudeau that both of Wilson’s young daughters aspire to be lawyers, and both want to be prime minister, surfaced in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
“I love that video,“ says Wilson-Raybould.
“He was at the table in that video at the constitutional discussions after Section 35 just came in and full of optimism about Aboriginal title and rights being recognized and what that meant for rebuilding Indigenous nations. And he was and is incredibly proud of both my sister and I. And his comments reflected his optimism about his daughters and that they could achieve anything that they wanted to achieve,” she says, adding that she has never had and does not have ambitions to one day lead the country as prime minister.
“My voice is still amplified and people still listen when I say things. I don’t know how long that’s going to last but I want to continue to say what I feel and what my constituents want.”
This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of BIV Magazine, which profiles a notable B.C. leader each month. The digital magazine can be read in full here.