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Federal Politics

‘Measure in Generations, Not Electoral Cycles’

Jody Wilson-Raybould has written an inspiring critique of Canada’s political system.

Crawford Kilian 12 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This book is not a game changer. Games are what our political system plays, stupid games of thrones where we pin our hopes on the entertainers of our choice.

This book is a system changer, questioning the games we live and die by and suggesting that some other system might even get us and our children through the disasters that the game-players have brought down upon us.

“System” is an abstract word, but it can have very concrete implications. For example, we hear a lot about “systemic racism” these days. Quebec Premier François Legault insists there is no such thing. A system, he says, “starts from the top,” so if he’s not racist, racism must be an aberration of underlings.

This is comparable to the attitudes of many Republican-dominated U.S. state governments as they try to root out critical race theory as an explanation for their racial troubles. CRT defines racism as something built into American law and culture, giving a systemic advantage to whites and systematically disadvantaging people of colour.

I can understand why Legault and the Republicans object to systemic racism. If racism is simply a personal prejudice of individuals, those individuals can be named and shamed; the rest of us are exonerated, and of course rightly scandalized by racist individuals. But if it’s systemic, we’re all guilty, even if we’re at the top and consider ourselves anti-racist. Worse yet, changing the system would deprive some of us of our privileges.

Nevertheless, it really is systemic. We may be anti-racist, but the system — in both Canada and the U.S. — is designed to benefit white people, especially middle- and upper-class white males. Get over it.

Systemic indoctrination

And as I’ve begun to realize over the past couple of years, the beauty of such a system is that, to its beneficiaries, the system feels like the natural order of things — it’s just the way things are, like the sun rising in the east and water running downhill. What’s more, those who criticize the system sound like cranks lost to science and even common sense. How, the beneficiaries wonder, can you even reason with a crank?

Jody Wilson-Raybould is no crank, only an intelligent outsider who knows her own system and has worked in ours. Her book is a devastating criticism, showing that ours is not at all the natural order of things.

It might look at first like the kind of tell-all now being produced by survivors of the Trump administration as they attempt to clear their own names (or at least get revenge). Some might read it as a he-said-she-said soap opera, looking for the naughty bits where Justin Trudeau behaves badly (or where the author does), thereby confirming the readers’ biases and leaving the system unquestioned.

Such readers will be sadly disappointed. But they may be enlightened, and shocked, by Wilson-Raybould’s analysis of the Canadian political system and its fatal failings. In its conversational, OMG style, it is brilliant political anthropology.

It is brilliant because it is written by someone who grew up living in another system, educated for leadership in that system just as Justin Trudeau and his father were educated in theirs.

‘Generations, not electoral cycles’

Both Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould come out of cultures favouring dynastic politics, though hers is the older dynasty, in a culture that consciously trains its leaders’ children. By contrast, Trudeau’s training was happenstance and interrupted by stints as a teacher in Vancouver and a bouncer in Whistler.

Even more to the point, Justin and his father trained to rule a system in which the point is to win and hold power and consign the losers to impotence. She trained for a very different system, “in which community and kinship are central, and a community is only as strong as its constituent parts. Individuals have required responsibilities and roles in making the community better.”

Wilson-Raybould draws another distinction: “Every Indigenous leader typically speaks of the lineage they come from and represent. That is because they view their role as a community role, not an individual one, and the work they do as measured in generations, not electoral cycles. What we do is for the past, the present and the future — not just to get re-elected in four years.”

In other words, noblesse in our system privileges its heirs as rulers, as long as they can game the system that lets them rule. In Wilson-Raybould’s, noblesse obliges its heirs to be trained to serve their communities, not their own factions.

Women are powerful leaders in most Indigenous communities, and Wilson-Raybould, as a chief’s daughter, went to UBC law school as her father had before her: “Having been raised to be a leader in my world, law school — albeit to learn about ‘white man’s law’ — was a part of the plan. Preparation, I guess, for inevitable work ahead for my community.”

This shows her father Bill Wilson’s remarkable foresight. The Indigenous political system seems as natural to those who grow up in it as the settler system seems to us — and each finds the other baffling. But Wilson, thinking of the future, knew his children would have to understand and function in both systems. (Imagine Pierre Trudeau packing his boys off to Wilson-Raybould’s We Wai Kai First Nation or Cowessess First Nation for their post-secondary education.)

So Wilson-Raybould grew up to succeed in settler culture but at home in her own. As her first book showed, she spent years in her earlier roles developing a political philosophy and strategy by which Indigenous peoples might understand the settler system and transform it into a truly multicultural and egalitarian society that thinks beyond the winners and losers of the next wretched election.

An offer she couldn’t refuse

In this book, she describes herself invited by Justin Trudeau to do just that, and it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. In 2015 he led the moribund Liberals from third party to majority government, and Jody Wilson-Raybould was sworn in as minister of justice and attorney general (she describes her mother, watching on TV, doing a lot of happy swearing as well). It must have seemed as if the settler system could tweak itself more than anyone thought.

Wilson-Raybould describes the euphoric first year or so of her hitch as MOJAG, moving fast on some key issues with the help of a superb staff. But eventually the system’s internal alarms began to go off, especially in the Prime Minister’s Office — the powerful bureaucracy created by Pierre Trudeau and now comparable to the eunuchs who ruled the Forbidden City in the last decades of the Chinese empire.

She was bringing up “red-meat issues,” issues that were hard to explain, hard to resolve, hard to sell, and hard to get re-elected on. If she succeeded, she would change the system. The PMO, staffed by people who’d gamed the old system and planned to stay in power, saw her as a threat. The SNC-Lavalin affair decided it: the system couldn’t survive serious support of the “rule of law,” so MOJAG had to go.

Wilson-Raybould clearly understands that she is writing systems analysis, not an autobiography. She names a lot of people, mostly her staffers, friends and family, but very few of her cabinet colleagues. Gerry Butts, as boss of the PMO, is named, and a few others like Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick.

But Justin Trudeau is always “the prime minister.” She realizes that he is just the actor in the role, the button to be pushed to keep the system in motion, as much its captive as the Indigenous prisoners and white guards in any Canadian prison. As such, his automaton hug at their last meeting, which makes her skin crawl, makes our skin crawl as well. Whoever the prime minister of Canada represents, it’s not Canadians.

A failed system

On many issues beyond Indigenous peoples, the system that drives Canada has failed us all. It has offered lip service to climate change while trying to sell and burn everything it can pump out of the ground. That in turn means it has probably lost B.C.’s wild salmon despite the government’s half-hearted efforts to close down a few fish farms, and the cattle and grain and canola that will go as drought locks down over the Prairies.

Handsome middle-aged men in suits, from the prime minister on down, have uttered the sound bites calling for more consultations, more meetings, more delays. As Wilson-Raybould shows, that’s how the colonial system operates, promising time for just one more tweak that will make everything work for everyone. Real soon now.

Presented with a real jump-or-die alternative, as it was in the pandemic spring of 2020, the settler system will jump and spend whatever it takes to keep people from starving to death, homeless, in the streets. Forget the last 40 years of neoliberal bullshit that kept it in power: the system knew it was in mortal danger.

But the system has only bought itself time to find a real solution; its default solution is a return to an indefinite 2019 — precisely what got us into this ongoing disaster.

Jody Wilson-Raybould describes the Indigenous political system, one that keeps working toward consensus: “Individuals do not decide,” she says, “nor do they have the authority to decide. The spark of truth comes from everyone contributing, sharing and building the best decision together.” But she does not prescribe her system; she leaves it to us to consider our system from her perspective, and to draw our own conclusions. The conclusion I draw is that we’ll never improve our own system without applying many Indigenous practices in defining leadership and making serious decisions.

Sure, we’d fight like hell about what to do next. But it wouldn’t be a fight over which white guy in a suit looks more like a good leader of a dead system. Instead, we’d fight to a consensus about what we need to do to get our kids to a point in, say, 2050 when they could give their own kids a chance to inherit something resembling the Canada they remember from the 2020s.  [Tyee]

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