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Jody Wilson-Raybould on Her Path to Independence

How she became an ethics champion, breaking not just with Trudeau but Canada’s party system. A Tyee interview.

Michael Harris 10 Jun

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

“Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.” — Albert Einstein

Although she had not heard that admonition before we spoke, Jody Wilson-Raybould got what the great physicist was saying.

“I like that quote a lot,” Canada’s former justice minister told me. “Every MP has to consider that question — how to be true to themselves.”

As it turned out, Wilson-Raybould didn’t need Einstein’s advice to find her way through the thorniest of political thickets.

Faced with an impasse in Ottawa that left her on one side of an ethical/political abyss, and the Prime Minister of Canada on the other, Wilson-Raybould chose principle over politics, joining the rarefied company of politicians of conscience that includes MPs like Michael Chong and Bill Casey.

Did Wilson-Raybould believe that her refusal to intervene in the criminal case of SNC-Lavalin triggered her removal from the justice portfolio? There is no hesitation.

“Of course I thought that had to do with it.”

Wilson-Raybould says that her subsequent decision to resign from cabinet, which she does not wish to speak about “too specifically,” was one of the hardest she has ever had to make.

Today she is very much at peace with that choice. As she explained in a wide-ranging interview with The Tyee, “I want the chapter on SNC-Lavalin to be closed and to focus on other things.”

In our conversation, she mapped the road from childhood to the person Canada sees exemplifying independence — of thought, will and now political party. She portrayed Justin Trudeau as a PM at odds with his outgoing public image. She spoke of being “marginalized” as an Indigenous woman even at the highest levels of state and, in bold strokes, painted a very different vision for how Canada might govern.

‘I know who I am’

Before quitting cabinet on Feb. 12, Jody Wilson-Raybould consulted her husband, Tim, who is “front and centre” in her “solid support group.” The couple makes decisions “together,” and this momentous call was made in Vancouver.

“I had meetings with the prime minister. They didn’t change anything because I know who I am, and I know when my values were crossed.”

Those values, and more important, how they were forged, is the heart of the matter in Wilson-Raybould’s meteoric rise, and equally abrupt exit from the corridors of power. In the end, she never was a Party gal.

Her saga is all about growing up Indigenous on Vancouver Island, with a father engrossed in native politics, famous activist grandmothers and aunts, and a mother, Sandra Wilson, who taught Jody and her sister Kory the meaning of “unconditional love.” Now they love each other that way.

“My sister and I are very close.”

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Sisters Kory and Jody grew up together on the West Coast. Photo courtesy of the Wilson-Raybould family.

Wilson-Raybould’s parents lived apart. She and Kory spent several years with their mother in a two-bedroom apartment in Victoria. Though they were far from deprived, money was tight. In order to give both her daughters rooms of their own, Jody’s mother slept in a bed in the living room.

Jody had always wanted a dog or a fish, but ended up with something more novel. As a third-grader, she got a ferret named Rat, a creature “hated” by her sister, but loved by Jody. “Rat died after eating a rubber ball,” Wilson-Raybould remembered.

The sisters also spent a lot of time on Cape Mudge, which has a number of reserves. The place was magical to the child, and to the woman who still lives there. Her piece of property faces west on the southern tip of Quadra Island, a 10-minute ferry ride from Campbell River. Cape Mudge has seeped into her soul.

“My ancestors were very smart about where we lived. They were here first and got the best sites! It is a place like no other. It is a narrow community three houses deep, off of Discovery Passage. It has soccer fields, baseball fields, museums, a carving shed, and a small, white Anglican Church near the Community Centre. Back of the village, there is a steep hill to more houses.”

Although Jody loved her times at Cape Mudge and “worshipped” her father Bill Wilson, a hereditary Kwakwaka’wakw chief, it was not Disneyland.

“We had responsibilities even as kids. One of the things I didn’t like about it, when we went to visit father, he would take us to all of his political meetings. Other kids were outside playing ball and running around, and I wanted to do that too. He made us listen at these meetings. I understand now the importance of why he did that.”

As she advanced through school, Jody worked, but did not slave at her studies, the way her sister did.

“I was pretty social. I never quite fit in with one clique. I was a lot more social than my sister, though, and went out on weekends. She studied.”

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Jody, and sister Kory, with their father Bill Wilson, a hereditary Kwakwaka’wakw chief who dragged her to meetings when other kids were playing. ‘I understand now the importance of why he did that.’ Photo courtesy of the Wilson-Raybould family.

Jody had more stitches than A-pluses back in those days.

“I landed in the emergency room every other week, if not every week. Loved running around, climbing trees until the sun went down. Jumping into the water, I cut my foot, stitches. I couldn’t tell you how many stitches I had as a kid.”

Though she liked math and history as a student, her favourite subject was physical education. A gifted athlete, Jody swam competitively for nine years. As she moved through Robb Road Middle School, and then Highland Senior Secondary in Comox, the Indigenous kid who “spoke up” for herself and could be “mischievous” made a big impression on two of her teachers.

At Robb Road, her physical education teacher was Bill Green. He saw more in Jody than a budding athlete, encouraging her to focus her energy and talents on new things like public speaking.

Later, at Highland, Tim McKinnon continued the nurturing. He nudged Jody into drama. If Wilson-Raybould has never forgotten them, neither have they forgotten her.

“When my community was honouring me after I resigned from cabinet, my mother tipped these teachers off. They were standing there at the airport to greet me when I came home,” she recalled.

Graham Greene once wrote that a door opens in childhood and we walk through it. For Wilson-Raybould, that door was opened by her father, Bill Wilson, the third Indigenous person to be called to the bar in B.C. She followed in his footsteps, first to law school, and then, inevitably, into politics — Indigenous-style.

“I think he had a lot to do with why I went to law school. I decided that law school was the best thing to pursue for Indigenous issues. I thought it was the best education you could get and would help me to help my community.”

It also, coincidentally, helped her to meet the man she would marry. Jody Wilson was working at the B.C. Treaty Commission when she met Tim Raybould. Tim negotiated for Westbank First Nations, a job he held for more than 30 years.

“At first I thought he was just another dull lawyer. A mutual friend of ours decided that we should all go out for dinner. We hit it off. We kept in touch, then closer touch, and then began to hang out. We went to Hawaii together and the rest, as they say, is history.”

On Christmas in 2007, Tim proposed to Jody at his brother’s house.

“He asked me ‘Will you marry me?’ and proceeded to pull a ring out of the Christmas tree. Jasmine, our little niece, got upset because she wanted the ring and loved Tim.”

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Jody Wilson and Tim Raybould on their wedding day in 2007. As she pondered how to handle pressure from the PM, Tim remained ‘front and centre’ in supporting her decisions.

Until her appearance on the elected national scene in 2015, Wilson-Raybould’s political activities were confined to the cause of her life — bettering the life of Indigenous Peoples. Her political values were forged during her tenure as a regional chief in British Columbia. The political environment could not have been more different than the Ottawa scene, in which she would soon be immersed. That is a reality that would make a tremendous difference in how things ultimately played out.

“Indigenous politics is very visceral, difficult at the best of times. In the Indigenous world that I know, culture, laws in the Big House, are all focused on trying to get consensus. There are no political parties. In the Big House, power-seekers are not liked. Our goal is to improve the life of our people.

“Contrast that to being a cabinet minister, part of a government and a political party, where partisanship is huge. Sometimes decisions are made to ensure one’s power is maintained, rather than improving people’s lives.”

The resonances from “Lavgate” are unmistakable.

‘No one heard the sound of the drums’

Although she would eventually run as a Liberal, it was Conservative leader Stephen Harper who got Wilson-Raybould thinking about seeking a seat in Parliament.

During the Idle No More protests in Ottawa, she and three other B.C. regional chiefs met with Harper, while Chief Theresa Spence was keeping her stoic vigil on Victoria Island. The chiefs hammered out their strategy for the Harper meeting: Swing for the fences. They would present a plan based on the big issues of land title and self-government — the only real game-changers that could transform the troubled “relationship.”

“I vividly remember that day, the sound of the drums in the Langevin office of the prime minister. Four of us from B.C. walking into the Langevin Building. I gave my message. It was that meeting that showed me that the Harper government was not listening. It was infuriating and frustrating. Nobody was listening on the government side, no one heard the sound of the drums.”

Although Harper ignored the plan of the B.C. regional chiefs, that didn’t mean Idle No More was futile.

“It raised awareness,” she told me. “It brought to the surface the level of frustration that exists in our communities across the country. It brought women’s voices to the forefront. And most of all, it put out a call for change. If you weren’t awakened by that, you slept through the whole phenomenon.”

‘The biggest challenge to self-determination for Indigenous Peoples is the lack of hope. They must feel empowered in their own lives.’ As justice minister in 2017, Wilson-Raybould addresses an Indigenous business summit in B.C. Photo: B.C government.

At the time of the Idle No More protests in Ottawa, regional chief Wilson-Raybould and then-Assembly of First Nations leader Sean Atleo visited Chief Theresa Spence on Victoria Island. Spence spoke of the terrible conditions her band faced at Attawapiskat, and the need to “deconstruct” the colonial legacy.

“The biggest challenge to self-determination for Indigenous Peoples is the lack of hope,” Wilson-Raybould said of that meeting. “They must feel empowered in their own lives. There is terrible frustration over government’s lack of understanding of that. Theresa Spence was a lightning rod for that sense of frustration.”

How did Wilson-Raybould feel when the Nishiyuu Walkers arrived in Ottawa in 2013, only to be ignored by the government of the day after their 1,600-kilometre snowshoe through winter? Then PM Stephen Harper chose to be in Toronto to greet panda bears from China rather receive the Cree walkers.

“Governments need to listen, not just adopt the attitude of ‘there they go again.’ Political leaders, PMs, premiers, they all have to make incredible leadership efforts to say, ‘enough is enough,’ and to do the right thing: Recognize rights beyond the post-colonial door. That kind of leadership, when it does come, will transform Canada.”

Trudeau and JWR: ‘I felt we were aligned back in 2013’

Just as she had done as a student, Jody Wilson-Raybould the Indigenous leader caught the eye of a mentor. This time it was Paul Martin. The former Liberal prime minister identified her as a potential candidate for the party, and made his views known to Justin Trudeau.

The young Liberal leader was intrigued.

Trudeau flew up to Whitehorse, where Wilson-Raybould was involved in Indigenous meetings. After sitting in on some of the sessions, Trudeau asked the regional chief if she would be interested in running under the Liberal banner — which also happened to be her favourite colour. Red, though not quite the splendid red featured on native blankets, masks, and at potlach. Still, it was a difficult sale for Trudeau.

“I had to be persuaded. We talked about values and our fathers. I liked meeting. I felt we were aligned back in July 2013.”

From the moment she decided to run, Wilson-Raybould’s life became a rollercoaster ride into national prominence. In 2014, she chaired the Liberal party’s convention. In 2015, she won a seat in parliament. Not long after that came the life-altering call informing her she was being considered for cabinet.

“They wanted to know if there was any role I couldn’t see myself taking on. Hints were dropped that in my role I would have a series of many, many stakeholders to deal with. That day in 2015 I went back to my room at the Sheraton and told Tim that I had a feeling I was going to be justice minister.”

She was right. At a subsequent meeting with the Prime Minister, and PMO staffers Gerald Butts and Katie Telford in early November 2015, Wilson-Raybould was formally asked into cabinet.

“There is a photo I don’t much like of me sitting across the desk from the PM, with my hand on my chest. I look very emotional. The PM gave me a hug and spoke about his father. He said, ‘I want you to be the minister of justice and attorney general,’ and talked about how his father had been justice minister.... When I returned to the Sheraton I said to my husband, ‘I told you so.’”

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Wilson-Raybould at the justice committee hearing into the SNC-Lavalin affair, where she presented her testimony the PMO tried to meddle with her decision as attorney general. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press.

It was a hectic time, with little opportunity to dig into biographies like Michelle Obama’s that she loved reading, or listen to Billy Joel and the other stars of the eighties she kept on her iPod. The woman who loves her coffee — two Ventis every morning — seized the opportunity, but not without some trepidation.

“It was a tough spot in some ways for me to be in. There were laws on the books that discriminate against my people, and now I was the chief law officer of the Crown upholding those laws.”

Despite her dilemma, there came a lot of notable accomplishments, from Bill C-16 on gender equality early in the mandate, to Bill C-14 on legalizing assisted-dying. Wilson-Raybould was particularly proud of one of her last acts as minister — this was the measure that assumed native claims were valid, and thereby replaced an adversarial court process for a negotiation. Though few people knew it, the directive had been “operationalized” two years before it became public.

One of the unforeseen dividends of navigating the assisted-dying legislation through the Commons was the powerful friendship Wilson-Raybould developed with cabinet colleague Jane Philpott.

“Our fate was cast together,” Wilson-Raybould said. “The issue of medically-assisted dying threw us together for seven months. It was the most intense emotional experience I have ever had, and I got to share that with her.”

Her low point was the government’s failure to deliver fundamental change on the Indigenous file before the 2019 election.

As the first Indigenous justice minister, Wilson-Raybould had believed that the stars were aligned to put in place the legislative mechanisms for transformational change in Indigenous communities. Although the PM “took interest in the file,” in the end he fell far short of the vision he had once promised back in Opposition days.

“I have to say that the high-water mark for Justin on the Indigenous file was the speech he gave in February 2018 — an historic speech around recognizing rights and removing the adversarial approach to Indigenous Affairs. I know that at some point there will be new leadership and hard work for transformational change on this file, rather than simple management.”

In that remarkable speech Justin Trudeau said this: “You see, Mr. Speaker, the challenge — then and now — is that Section 35 recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and treaty rights, those rights have not been implemented by our governments.”

And they still aren’t.

‘Isolating the PM is not necessarily beneficial’

Beyond the heady rush of making a difference in peoples’ lives, and all the bumps along the way that made her long for the sanity of Cape Mudge, the forces that would so dramatically reverse Wilson-Raybould’s fortunes were at work — including being Indigenous. She believes Indigenous people, including herself, face racism and bias in their daily lives, and in media reporting in Canada.

“As an Indigenous woman, there have been barriers. I still have a sense of being marginalized. I was marginalized around a lot of tables, including the table of cabinet.”

And then there was the relationship with Justin Trudeau himself.

While courting her for the party, the Liberal leader had been up close and personal. After he became prime minister, and she joined his cabinet, the PMO staff built walls around the man on the top of the Liberal wedding cake. Neither caucus nor cabinet had a personal connection to their leader.

Because she was Trudeau’s attorney general, the PM spoke more often with Wilson-Raybould than other ministers. She described their relationship as “decent,” but noted that they didn’t speak “very often” and spoke personally “even less.” Like a lot of cabinet ministers, Wilson-Raybould regretted the lack of access.

“The PM and I didn’t have a direct relationship. I didn’t have his direct contact information and always used intermediaries. That’s the way things were. I hope it’s true that he is trying harder to change that. Isolating the PM is not necessarily beneficial.”

That is understatement on steroids. In the wake of the SNC-Lavalin fiasco, the PM lost his principal secretary, his clerk of the Privy Council, two star female cabinet ministers, a chunk of his reputation as a feminist and champion of Indigenous rights, and a boatload of personal credibility. According to the woman in the eye of the storm, none of it needed to happen.

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As a child, with her grandmother Ethel Pearson (left), at the naming ceremony where Jody was given the name Puglass, which means ‘a woman born to noble people.’ Photo courtesy of the Wilson-Raybould family.

“All I wanted or asked — and I think this would have resolved the SNC issue a lot sooner — was for there to be a recognition that something went seriously wrong, that there were repeated attempts at political interference in a criminal case. It was not acceptable, and I had to do something about it. That is all I ever wanted to hear from the PM. Had I heard that at his press conference, and I didn’t, none of this would have happened.”

Will Canadians ever hear the full story of why she resigned? Choosing her words carefully, Wilson-Raybould insisted that she has supplied all the “material” evidence on the SNC-Lavalin affair that she was privy to.

But she added a tantalizing caveat. Other people, like Jane Philpott, might have other information that she “suspects” would be of interest to Canadians. That said, she wants to put the past behind her.

“I want the chapter on SNC-Lavalin to be closed and to focus on other things. I don’t want to be brought up in front of another committee to discuss private discussions with the PM. I don’t want to be vengeful or damaging to him. But the most fundamental tenet of democracy, the rule of law, must be upheld. The laws have to apply equally to everybody, and the institutions that administer the law have to be independent.”

A Quebec judge recently confirmed the decision of Wilson-Raybould’s former department, by green-lighting a criminal trial for SNC-Lavalin after presiding over a lengthy preliminary.

‘You have to speak the truth’

Wilson-Raybould believes that the party system as it now exists has to be re-invented. It is not parties per se that are the problem, but the way in which they have evolved. They are too leader-centric, and far too partisan. In her view, both the PM and other party leaders have to be responsive to parliament, not the other way around.

“I don’t believe in blind loyalty or blind partisanship. I do not believe in making decisions that set aside important public policy for the sake of political power. I do not believe that the best public policy is just getting re-elected. I believe in doing good public policy, regardless of what party is in power.”

And Wilson-Raybould’s personal takeaway from leaving cabinet, and then the Liberal party? It has everything to do with being comfortable with that face that looks back at all of us from the mirror. In an age where spin and tactics have all but ousted the plain facts in politics, the only deliverance may be somehow finding authenticity again. Wilson-Raybould believes she knows how.

“Speak the truth. In my culture, you have to speak the truth, otherwise our culture dies. Coming from a long line of matriarchs, women who took a stand, I had to tell the country who I am. I didn’t lose my way.”

The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.  [Tyee]

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