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From indigenous rights advocate to Cabinet

22 September 2016 - By Frank Neill

Becoming Attorney-General and Minister of Justice was not on Jody Wilson-Raybould’s radar when she left law school to become a Crown prosecutor in Canada’s biggest criminal court in Vancouver.

Ms Wilson-Raybould did, however, have “the good fortune to be raised in a political family. My father and grandmother were advocates for indigenous rights, so I was brought to community meetings from a young age.

“I come from an indigenous community on the West Coast of Canada, from the Musgamagw Tsawatainek and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples and I was raised in my culture – raised to believe in who I am, to always remember where I came from and to use my skills and abilities such as they are to assist in improving the lives of indigenous peoples,” she says.

“I really didn’t have aspirations to be a politician, but always believed in contributing to public service.

“I was taught by my grandmother that if you believe in something, if you work hard, you can accomplish anything you want to, and these are the values that stick with me to this day.

“Being raised in an indigenous political family, I realised that the rights of indigenous people in our country and recognition of those rights could be improved.

“The battles that my family engaged in in the advocacy carried on with me.”

As time passed, an opportunity to become involved in a significant way to advocate for indigenous rights did present itself.

That came after following in her father’s footsteps to law school, being a Crown prosecutor for four years, then joining the British Columbia Treaty Commission – an independent body tasked with overseeing treaty negotiations among the federal government, the provincial government and the indigenous people of British Columbia.

Elected by the chiefs

The opportunity presented for Ms Wilson-Raybould to become the regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, which is a position that is elected by all the chiefs in British Columbia to represent them on a provincial and a national level.

“We worked really hard among the indigenous leadership to bring forward concrete, pragmatic solutions for indigenous people to become self-governing.

“The government at the time was not listening to our voices in spite of the fact that we were delivering well thought through potential solutions.

“That, as the regional chief, frustrated me immensely,” Ms Wilson-Raybould says.

“Around that time, I met a gentleman named Justin Trudeau (now Canada’s Prime Minister, but then leader of the Liberal Party).

“He [along with other people] convinced me to put my name forward to run in federal politics. I campaigned for about 15 months to become a Member of Parliament.

“I had the great honour to then be asked by our Prime Minister to serve as the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada.”

In that role, Ms Wilson-Raybould says, her campaigning for indigenous rights “is definitely ongoing”.

“Every different election that I have run in was for a particular reason to advance certain causes and to create space – as my grandmother taught me – for indigenous peoples to improve their quality of life.

“Central to my role as Minister and Member of Parliament is not simply to advocate for indigenous people but ensure that we create that space for all Canadians to be able to do what my grandmother said: ‘if you work hard that, regardless of you race or ethnicity or gender, you will be able to succeed’.

“That is how I see my role as Minister – being an ambassador for the Charter that we have in our country that espouses our values and who we are,” she says.

“In terms of the values that I bring to my roles, I think we can all learn from different people’s experiences.

“For me, I think that everything is rooted in a sense of community and that in a community that functions well everybody plays a role that ensures that things run smoothly.

“Again these are the teachings of my grandmother.

“When anyone is inhibited from playing a role, the community suffers. I think there are a lot of parallels in terms of justice and ensuring that if you work hard then people can fulfil their roles in society.

Diversity is a strength

“One of the things that attracted me to our Prime Minister Trudeau and his philosophy was that, in our country, diversity is a strength.

“He allows individuals to sit around a table or to sit in the House of Commons and have vigorous debates and discussions and recognises that through that diversity you gain strength and you make better decisions.”

Ms Wilson-Raybould visited New Zealand from 29 August to 2 September as a Prime Minister’s Fellow.

During her visit, she engaged with several government Ministers, including Prime Minister John Key and Justice Minister Amy Adams. The Attorney-General, Christopher Finlayson, accompanied her and her delegation during their week-long visit.

Ms Wilson-Raybould received briefings from senior justice sector officials and meet with Māori leaders, including the chief negotiator of Ngāi Tūhoe, to discuss treaty settlement.

“The Prime Minister invited me as a Fellow, as a guest of the New Zealand Government, which is a great honour,” she says.

“I’m certainly very pleased to be down here and have the assistance of our mission to engage in a very broad visit.

“There are a lot of things that we are looking to learn from what’s happening here in this country, whether it be around criminal justice reform, looking at the over-representation of indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system.

“We have many shared experiences, not just indigenous peoples, but peoples with mental illness or addictions who aren’t treated for the illness that they have, but find themselves filtering through the criminal justice system on a far too regular basis.

Learning from NZ

“So we’re down here learning from lessons from the experiences and successes that New Zealand has had.

“In terms of the colonial experience, we can learn from how settlements are being made in this country.”

That is particularly relevant given that “we are in the process of working with indigenous peoples in Canada.

“There’s lots of success stories we are sharing and lessons that have been learnt.

“One of the amazing things that we have all remarked on is that in Canada our indigenous population is just over 4% of the population. Here it is a little bit more than 15% of the population.

“In Canada we have just over 50 indigenous languages across the country. 27 of these languages are in British Columbia. They are as different as Japanese would be from Italian.”

This is an important issue, particularly given that the United Nations has recognised the loss of language not only in Canada but throughout the world. “We need to do a lot better job at ensuring we promote languages,” she says.

“Here there are some variations in Māori, but there are still common understandings. It’s just amazing to hear public servants and Ministers speaking the language and how integrated Māori culture is in everyday life here.

“It’s something to marvel at, because we need to do a lot more of that in Canada,” Ms Wilson-Raybould says.

Promoting gender parity

Just as ethnic diversity is important, so too is gender diversity.

“I’m a firm believer in ensuring that we promote gender equality, gender parity,” Ms Wilson-Raybould says.

“We have a gender parity in our Cabinet in Canada and it promotes different discussions. It changes the tone of discussions.

“The same is true if you are looking at a Supreme Court or if you are thinking of working around a boardroom table.

“It’s not just reaching gender parity, but reaching diversity in general. So the richer decisions come from a table or a courtroom where the people that are sitting in the chairs are reflecting of the people that they are representing.

“So it it’s in a courtroom and you appear before the bench, and our Chief Justice said this in a speech, you need to be able as a person standing before the bench see yourself in that bench to have trust in the judiciary.

“I think the same is true for the House of Commons as it is for the boardroom. One of the commitments we have made as a government, and this is within my domain as the Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General, I am responsible for appointing judges to the superior courts in our country and we are in the process of actually renovating how we evaluate potential jurists to sit on our superior courts and making that criteria broader in terms of bringing in diversity, ensuring that we have an equal number of women to men on the bench.

“We’re not there yet. I made appointments of 15 new judges to the superior courts across the country and 10 out of the 15 were women. That was this year.

“Some people in the media – the media being what it is – remarked that’s not gender neutral. Our arguments were that we have a long way to go to get gender parity. We have a long way to go until we find that on the bench.

“But on our highest court we have nine judges and there’s the Chief Justice. Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin is a woman. So we have four women and four men. Justice Cromwell is retiring on September the first so our next appointment will determine the majority on the court in terms of whether it’s men or women. It’s pretty exciting,” Ms Wilson-Raybould says.

Canada’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould (second form right) next to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Last updated on the 22nd September 2016