What Jody Wilson-Raybould Really Thinks

The newly independent candidate on Indigenous governance, SNC-Lavalin, and whether she wants the prime minister's job

Jody Wilson-Raybould speaking into a crowd of media microphones
The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

The SNC-Lavalin affair brought Jody Wilson-Raybould to the political fore, but it seems she was already well on her way. In 1983, her father, Bill Wilson, a prominent Indigenous leader, told then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, on national TV, that his daughters aspired to Trudeau’s office. In her early twenties, her community—British Columbia’s We Wai Kai Nation—endowed Wilson-Raybould with the role of Hiligaxste’, which she defines as “one who corrects the chief’s path.”

Perhaps she was destined to bring a measure of humility and a lesson in political ethics to Justin Trudeau. But is she destined for his office?

It’s a question she teased when I spoke with her recently. For now, the 48-year-old is preoccupied with retaining her seat as MP for the Vancouver–Granville riding, where she is running as an independent after the prime minister removed her from the Liberal caucus earlier this year. We spoke about the challenges of being a party-less MP—and how it may be the ideal status for her unconventional approach to politics.

Last month, Wilson-Raybould published From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, which is not a standard preelection political memoir but a collection of speeches given over the past nine years that details her vision for reconciliation. The book traces her evolution from a Crown prosecutor in Vancouver to the regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations in 2009 to an MP in 2015, and her subsequent appointment as attorney general of Canada and minister of justice. Along the way, it hints at how she’s learned to translate the teachings of her culture—consensus-based decision making, modesty in leadership, telling the truth even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable—into a viable political strategy. She does not hide her frustration with the glacial pace of reconciliation.

In our interview, she asserts that the biggest roadblock to reconciliation, legislatively speaking, involves Section 35 of the constitution, which affirms Aboriginal rights—a concept that, thirty-seven years later, has not been adequately implemented through federal law, says Wilson-Raybould. Disagreements over how to do so are, in fact, what presaged the meltdown of trust between the prime minister and his attorney general last year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

BB: You come from a background where you have a governance approach that’s very different than the federal government’s, yet you’ve advanced very far into the federal government. I’d love to hear about how you made that transition.

JWR: My ability to live in two different worlds has provided me with the foundation for all of my professional experience. Having been a regional chief and Indigenous leader, my basic approach to resolving tough issues is consensus-based. I was raised, from a very young age, by my grandmother and my parents, to know who I am and where I come from and to understand, as an Indigenous person, my rights and responsibilities. We don’t have political parties. We agree on everything, or we don’t. We have different views—of course we do. And we vigorously debate those views. We address issues that confront our communities with the goal of improving the lives of our people.

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And that’s the approach I’ve taken. I want to bring that way of working, collaboratively and through consensus as much as possible, to the work that I do federally. And it is definitely a transition. It is not necessarily easy to transition into a world of partisanship and political parties historically divided along ideological lines. Coming into the federal world and joining the Liberal Party was a really difficult decision for me. I ascribed very closely to their ideology around inclusion and equality and justice. But it was still difficult to accept the realities of hyperpartisanship, having one party consider themselves as having a monopoly on a particular issue or position and thinking that their position is the only right one.

It’s a concern that I have as a member of Parliament, and it is certainly something that I view now, being an independent member and having the ability to point out where hyperpartisanship takes over the agenda on major issues where we have to be less partisan, like on climate change. My role here, much like my role when I was the regional chief, is to try to find consensus and come up with solutions that stand the test of time.

BB: I want ask you about your decision to run as an independent, and how that might or might not be related to the idea of consensus, because you’re still going to be working within the party system, and many commentators have said being an independent is hopeless: even if you can get elected, you’re not going to get anything done, you’re not going to have any influence in Ottawa. I gather you don’t agree with that point of view. I’d like to hear why, whether this idea of consensus and being an independent go together, and if you feel you have an opportunity to get out of that partisanship divide if you’re elected as an independent.

JWR: The short answer is: absolutely. First of all, we need more independent voices in Parliament, in politics generally, and among policy makers. I hear questions from people in my riding about the role of independence, what one needs to be an independent, or even if one has as much sway. I understand where that comes from. We are so ingrained in terms of thinking about politics and political parties. I think political parties have become something they shouldn’t be. I think there’s value in political parties in terms of organization and teamwork, but it’s gotten to a place where parties—or members of Parliament, in this case—have become so beholden to the leaders of those parties versus the other way around. I believe that leaders and the prime minister should be responsible to members of Parliament, who, in turn, are responsible to constituents.

And perhaps I always meant to be in this place, even though I didn’t choose to run as an independent. I feel really content with where I’m at, and since becoming independent by virtue of the actions of the prime minister a number of months ago, I have had extraordinary conversations with members from all political parties on issues not only important to them but of importance to the country. It’s fostered this environment of recognizing that members come to Parliament for particular reasons: they want to achieve particular things and solve some of the big challenges we have.

I’ve always had a very loud voice—and I don’t mean that in terms of amplification. My voice is even louder now. There are always constraints when you’re within a party. But I now have the ability to provide unvarnished views that are reflective of what my constituents are telling me about particular issues and not whipped as they are in political parties. So I can advocate directly what my constituents are asking for. And again, in that role, I’m trying to be a bridge on major issues that require a nonpartisan perspective or approach, like climate change or Indigenous issues. If there’s a majority government, backbench MPs, particularly the ones in the governing party, do not necessarily have any power. That is by virtue of the nature of our parliamentary system. As an independent, I’m not being provided prescribed lines that I have to speak. I have the independence of being able to advocate directly.

BB: That’s what occurred to me. You’re not the average independent. You have established a much bigger platform already, going in, and you can continue to use that platform. It may not be about the votes on particular pieces of legislation, but it will be about the conversation that occurs.

JWR: Absolutely. And the ability to engage with people in the media on those conversations, to be out publicly having those conversations and raising issues for people to consider. But I think, also, equally if not more important is the opportunity to work behind the scenes in trying to build bridges or trying to work on fundamental issues and approaches. So pieces of legislation that might not get attention but are really necessary in order to work collaboratively. And, I mean, I know the different realities to a great degree. When I was justice minister, we had major pieces of legislation that we had to get passed. And I think back to the very first one I introduced, around medical assistance in dying. I took a similar approach, as much as I could, to try to build consensus around an incredibly divisive issue. It’s an emotional topic, and not everybody is happy with the results, but it was decided not without going through a lot of vigorous debate, hearing from all sides of that issue, and trying to find that balance.

BB: Let’s talk a little bit about Indigenous issues since that’s the subject of your book. My sense is that you feel Truth and Reconciliation was a good process, but we’re now just treading water and not making progress. What’s needed to jump-start the situation?

JWR: One of the major reasons I decided to run in federal politics was the frustration that I felt, and that the leaders I represented in the Indigenous world felt, about not making progress or moving forward. Having said that, looking back on the past three and a half decades since Section 35 has been in the constitution, there has been progress made in terms of Indigenous rights. But it has been too slow. I have a general disappointment about the progress that was made over the past four years. There has been good work done by this government to address closing the gap between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada, making investments around boil-water advisories, etc. But I think that we missed an opportunity. We could have taken the next transformative step toward a rights-recognition approach versus the approach that every government, including this one, has taken with respect to Indigenous rights—that approach being denying those rights or having Indigenous peoples prove their rights in court.

I’m still passionately committed to achieving a rights-recognition world, and that will be done through, and by way of, legislation. And, once we have a rights-recognition framework in this country as the foundation for when Indigenous communities are ready and able to move beyond the Indian Act to become self-governing, the country will be better for it. It is going to take a leader to take that step. That’s the source of my frustration. I know that change is hard. Moving beyond the status quo is difficult for governments, and it’s certainly difficult for Indigenous people. In the book, I use the analogy of a ship. When a ship has been going in the same direction for 150 years, it’s difficult to change tack and move in a different direction. The opportunity that we had as government, that the prime minister had, was to change the direction of that ship.

BB: When you say a rights-based approach, tell me more. Does that mean, rather than a group having to prove in court the rights that it may have around, say, a particular resource-extraction project—that it essentially flips, and the government would have to prove it had the rights? Is it the shifting of an onus?

JWR: I wouldn’t describe it as the shifting of an onus. When Section 35 came into the constitution in 1982, so too did, obviously, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an amazing and transformative moment for the country. The government recognized the rights and freedoms of individuals, and to ensure that those rights and freedoms were upheld, governments created laws and policies to protect those rights. You never asked an individual to go to court to prove they had freedom of expression, for example. Governments did everything to ensure those rights continued to exist. The exact opposite is true for Section 35. And it still is, to a great degree, today. When I was justice minister, we tried to change that by various directives. I view Section 35 as a full box of inherent rights that Indigenous peoples have, and we need to understand and figure out, as a country, how we reconcile those rights. But since 1982, if Indigenous peoples said they had the inherent right of self-government, they would have to prove that, or if they said they had title to a particular piece of land, they would have to go to court—for forty or more years, in some cases—to prove that.

The government never asks you to prove your Charter rights. They do with respect to Indigenous people. So think about the last thirty-five-plus years and that lost opportunity. If we had actually approached Indigenous issues the same way we approached Charter rights, we would be a lot further along levelling the playing field and recognizing that, yes, you have titles and rights, or, yes, you have the inherent right of self-government. In recognition of those rights, let’s figure out how we can work together as different governments within what I believe is an amazing, evolving system of cooperative federalism. That doesn’t mean Indigenous communities are going take over Vancouver or take over Toronto.

It means Indigenous communities will need land bases upon which they can grow. In some communities, they will do this through self-government agreements that they negotiate with the Crown. They will rebuild their core institutions of government and will draw down jurisdiction on various issues core to their governance and negotiate intergovernmental arrangements around other issues, like shared decision making over territories. How that intergovernmental relationship unfolds is something that we could have had thirty-seven years to establish. But now, we can still do it in a way that doesn’t require an Indigenous community to go to court for proof that their rights exist, but where there’s a recognition, when you engage in discussions or relationships with the federal or the provincial or territorial governments, that we can—the government can—create pathways for Indigenous communities to rebuild their nations.

BB: Let’s go back in time a little bit. I’d love to trace the pathways of some of these views. What part did your father play?

JWR: My father and I have had a very close relationship throughout my life. As you probably know, he had a very political career himself in a different time, and was certainly involved in the constitutional discussions after 1982. He was raised in our potlatch, in our big-house culture, and in the laws of our big house. He, along with my relatives and my grandmother, taught me what my responsibilities were. For our people, everybody in a community has a role to play, and in order for the community to function properly, people can’t be inhibited in playing their roles. We are, in part and importantly, a matrilineal society, and women in our community are never chiefs, but women guide the chiefs. And I guess, in terms of relating my role in our big house to the role that I play now, there’s being calm, being thoughtful, and understanding the fundamental interconnectedness between and among individuals in our community and achieving balance. And again, I think it goes back to fostering an environment where we have common goals and want to achieve them through, as much as possible, consensus. That’s a link to the role that I played, and continue to play, in mainstream politics. Reflecting back to when I was the minister of justice and the attorney general, I saw that as my role also, in ensuring adherence to values and principles in the rule of law and ensuring that there is balance and equality and inclusion. So there’s a direct connection, I think, in that regard.

BB: In your twenties, you stepped out of your role in your community and eventually became a prosecutor in Vancouver. Tell me about that transition.

JWR: I always knew that I would, in some way, shape, or form, in whatever office, be involved in the advancement of Indigenous rights and working to improve life within my own community generally. But I didn’t know how that would manifest itself. Because I love my father and look up to my father, I went to law school. And I’m really glad that I did. I feel that going to law school provided me with an extraordinary education and the necessary tools to go out and support my professional work and my advocacy. When I came out of law school, there was a push by many for me to not come back to my community, interestingly enough, but to work in various Indigenous organizations.

Instead, I articled at a medium-sized firm in Vancouver, an all-purpose firm. I loved being in court, in front of a judge, and advocating perspectives and views and arguments. So I saw it as an opportunity to apply to the Crown, and I did. I worked in the criminal courthouse for just over three years. It was an extraordinary experience. I value the years that I was a prosecutor, and I wish that maybe I was still a prosecutor, sometimes, because they do such good work. It opened my eyes, even more, to the reality of the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal-justice system and also to the lack—at that time, when I was a prosecutor, between 2000 and 2003—of resources and community-based approaches to rehabilitation—rehabilitation in the sense of drug addiction and actually not treating individuals necessarily as criminals. If they found themselves in the criminal-justice system because of an addiction issue or mental-health issue, there weren’t the tools or the avenues to assist those people in managing those issues. There were lots of Indigenous people who came into my courtroom and were in a bit of a revolving door until you didn’t see them again. You don’t know, necessarily, what happened to them, but one can imagine. People committing crimes because of poverty or addiction issues was eye-opening and incredibly sad.

When I became the minister of Justice, I went back to my courtroom. And, amazingly, the courtroom that I was a prosecutor in is now a drug-treatment court, which is awesome. It was difficult to be a prosecutor then because you didn’t necessarily have the tools to assist people going through the criminal-justice system. There weren’t as many restorative-justice measures as there are now. I still believe that there are not enough restorative-justice approaches or specialized courts to address the root causes of why people enter that process in the first place. And, for the most part, Indigenous peoples find themselves in this revolving door of the criminal-justice system by virtue of some colonial-legacy issues that need to be addressed and approached in a more comprehensive way.

BB: Economic development is very important for the empowerment of Indigenous communities. But with economic development, another can of worms is introduced, things like inequality and the power dynamics that occur around wealth. Is that something that you have thought about or dealt with? How to manage that process so that you don’t get the pollution that comes with the empowerment, if you know what I mean.

JWR: I know what you mean. I did give a speech on a very similar topic in terms of economic development and how economic development can be sustainable in the long run, and it has everything to do with governance. Indigenous communities need economic development now, but economic development, in my view, will be more sustainable once Indigenous communities have moved beyond the Indian Act and establish their own institutions of government to make decisions. The system of regulation under the Indian Act on reserves has been and continues to be a detriment to business on reserves. There has been success among First Nations in moving beyond the Indian Act “sectorially,” I call it, in land management on reserve.

There are, I don’t know the exact number, but dozens of self-governing First Nations in Canada. A lot of communities have availed themselves of new fiscal relationships, but there still remains, among those communities, a collectivist sentiment, so to speak. While there are opportunities for individual entrepreneurs—and there are a ton of individual Indigenous entrepreneurs—there is still a balance between individual needs, the aspirations of entrepreneurship, the perspectives of Indigenous communities, and the focus on communitarianism within those communities. You can see that reflected in laws that communities have brought in. For example, around reserve land: you can lease your reserve land, but you can’t alienate your reserve land—you can’t sell that to somebody else. You’re always maintaining the collective nature of that land. So there are examples of it. It goes back to recognizing that we want individuals to be successful, but I find that, in considering the issues that you and I are talking about, Indigenous communities have recognized the collective nature of well-being and have thought to ensure and try to maintain that balance between the two.

BB: What strikes me about that is the lessons for the rest of us—meaning non-Indigenous folks. That this is a different brand of capitalism, a brand tempered by a value system that is not in society at large. Even though we might profess that value system, that’s not necessarily the reality of the capitalist system in which we live. Do you feel that that is a model or a way to approach Canadian governance at large? Are there some lessons from how Indigenous communities want to govern themselves that are applicable to non-Indigenous communities?

JWR: Can the rest of the country or different governments learn something from Indigenous communities and the way we have governed historically and the way we try to find balance between individual and collective rights and interests? Yes. Very early on, when I went to Ottawa as a member of Parliament, I wanted to create space for Indigenous nations to rebuild their governing institutions and become part of this evolving cooperative federalism that I see as the opportunity for the country. And I realized, particularly more recently, that Ottawa and the way things are governed federally—and, to a great degree, provincially—can learn a lot from the ways that we govern: the sense of ensuring that balance between a community that is healthy, strong, and thriving and individuals who are healthy, strong, and thriving.

BB: That actually relates to the SNC-Lavalin situation in the sense that that was a case where money and politics mixed in an unethical way. Many people would say that’s the norm. How do we incentivize that sense that politicians can’t be bought, that there is some greater reward that’s not going to be delivered through giving a corporation what they want or, after they retire as an MP, getting a plush job on a corporate board or a law firm?

JWR: For the most part, people run to be members of Parliament for good reasons, and they want to achieve certain objectives. They certainly don’t get involved in politics to make money. Members of Parliament, or the vast majority of them, work extremely hard. So I don’t think it’s a problem in terms of having good people getting involved in politics. You definitely need more people getting involved and more of a diversity of people getting involved. Some of the challenges of doing that are systemic and speak to some of the challenges that we have in terms of our political institutions, our democratic process. We need to look and reflect on those, and create spaces for more divergence of opinions, and recognize that those with divergent opinions actually mean something and contribute to the discussion.

But the nature of the political system that I experienced in Ottawa, the nature of what political parties have become, to a great degree, cripples free voices or diversity of opinion. We’re never going to get rid of political parties—they are useful for certain things. But political parties and leaders have centralized power so much that different voices do not have a part in decision making. We have a centralization of power, not just with the prime minister, but with the people in the Prime Minister’s Office. People who are unelected, who may have special interests, and who have no accountability to any constituents. That’s wrong. We need to create a place where cabinet ministers have more ability to do their jobs and MPs have a role in decision-making processes. When MPs have that accountability mechanism built in, then the centralization of power will be seen as completely detrimental to our democracy, and this will ensure that having individuals vote for people to represent them means something.

BB: I’m American, and I often see things through that lens. Living in Canada, I’m terrified that what’s happening south of the border is going to happen here—a Canadian version of it. And, of course, there are seeds of that here in Ontario: people feel that way with the premier, as well as in Quebec. Is that something you spend much time worrying about? That, rather than focusing on the important issues that you and I are talking about that, there’s this bigger fire that needs to be addressed?

JWR: Two or three days ago, there was a study that was done on the health of our democracy and how Canadians view democracy. I can’t remember the exact number, but something like 70 percent support democracy but are concerned about it. I have always been an optimist, and I believe in the goodness of Canadians, and as a public figure or politician, I have never and will never pander to misplaced populism. The limited support that I see for the People’s Party of Canada is somewhat of an answer to your question, and the reaction to those anti-immigration billboards, when they were put up, is also a reflection of it. I believe in the best of people, but I think that we need to be constantly vigilant and to ensure that those sentiments—which exist in certain marginalized portions of our population—are not able to spread.

I firmly believe that diversity is our strength, and we need to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to succeed. And the more that we ensure this happens and take ownership, as individuals in government, to put aside the negative seeds of populism—which sometimes borders on racism or is outright—the less chance it has to fertilize. We need to protect those that are vulnerable because how society responds to the most vulnerable is the measure of how we’re going to be judged. And if we relate it back to Indigenous politics, we see that Indigenous peoples—not all, but most—have always operated from the perspective that no one can be left behind, otherwise the community suffers.

BB: Public life is stressful and straining on a good day. For you, for the last eight months, the pressure’s been turned up. Do you have ways that you personally manage to deal with that?

JWR: To be honest, as I always am, I didn’t feel a lot of stress over the SNC issue, and I say that because, if you’re following your values and you’re speaking the truth, it’s not that stressful. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I didn’t feel stressed. Also, throughout that experience, there were a lot of very negative things written about me that I knew weren’t true. I ignored them even though they could potentially have had a political impact. I felt content with what I knew to be the truth. I’m an optimist, and I believe that the truth prevails. That gets me through. I believe the truth prevails. Some people may consider me naive for thinking that, but it’s a hell of a lot better for me than the alternative, and that I think Canadians are generally good people and that they believe in the truth. So that is what got me through that particular reality. Something, you could say, that has made me a little bit upset is the blind trust or the blind loyalty that I saw, in others, to the point where it might cloud their judgements. And certainly, aside from Jane Philpott, no other minister of the Crown took my side. Not that there were sides, but took the side of the rule of law.

BB: There was this now very well-known incident when you were twelve, and Pierre Trudeau was at some sort of event in conversation with your father, and your father made the comment: “I have these two daughters and they have aspirations on your office.” Have you ever actually ever commented on that? Do you recall that time? And what did you actually think about it?

JWR: I absolutely remember the day. That was in 1983. It happened during the televised constitutional discussions on self-government with then prime minister Trudeau and my dad and bunch of other Indigenous leaders. I was sitting in my grade-six class watching it. And my dad said that and all my schoolmates looked at me. Two things I say about this. My dad is a very proud person. He’s incredibly proud of my sister and me and my brother. His comments then, around being prime minister, were a reflection on how he saw Section 35 and the constitution, how he saw the place of Indigenous peoples in our country and the opportunities that that moment represented. And he saw the opportunity for my sister and I, that—and this is my grandmother’s teaching—if you work hard, if you have a plan, you can accomplish anything you want.

That was a proud dad making comments about his daughters. I really loved that because it was a really important moment for myself and my sister. Now, there have been many people, up to and including today, who say, “I want you to be the prime minister.” I’ve seen websites about Jody for prime minister. It’s incredibly humbling. To be honest, I’ve never had aspirations to be prime minister. I didn’t ever really think that I would get into federal politics. But I did know very early on that I have leadership roles to play based on my upbringing. I see my role as being a hard-working member of parliament and all that comes with that. But I never envisioned actually running for federal public office.

BB: So I guess, you never know.

JWR: Yeah. You never know what will happen. The world unfolds as it should.

Brian J. Barth
Brian J. Barth (@brianjbarth) has contributed to the Washington Post and The New Yorker.