October 24, 2021

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The Passionate Pursuit of Law

Jody Wilson-Raybould reflects on her experience in federal politics

Independent candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould arrives at a federal election campaign event in Vancouver on Sept. 18, 2019.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

In 2015, Jody Wilson-Raybould symbolized the change that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were promising. She had left a role as regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations in B.C. for elected politics, hoping to change the country. Six years later, she has decided not to run again, saying the atmosphere in federal politics is toxic.

She resigned from Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet in early 2019 over the SNC-Lavalin affair – according to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, the Prime Minister improperly sought to influence her to enter a remediation agreement with the company rather than prosecuting it for fraud and bribery. The scandal shook Mr. Trudeau’s government in the 2019 election year – but Ms. Wilson-Raybould was re-elected as an Independent MP. Now she has a new book, “Indian” in the Cabinet, due for release in September – perhaps just before another election.

She spoke with The Globe and Mail about her experience in federal politics.

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You ran for federal office six years ago and said you saw this as the best way to change the country. You announced you are leaving, six years later, with a statement saying Parliament is toxic. What did you mean?

I entered federal politics wanting to do politics differently and truly believing that that was possible. And I still believe that. I had my eyes opened wide about the nature of hyper-partisanship or blind loyalty when it comes to politics. And for me being loyal to a party versus loyal to ideas creates a toxicity around not actually being able to get things done, and it suppresses individual opinions and debate on issues.

There was a big moment obviously around the SNC-Lavalin affair. But aside from that, what was different from what you expected?

In 2013 or 2014, I decided to leave my position as regional chief because of the need to change laws and policies. And I believed wholeheartedly in the opportunity that was presented to me [by] the now-Prime Minister, the way that we had committed to addressing the major issues that were important to me. Obviously, I joined the Liberal Party. I believed that we were going to do what we promised we were going to do. And my realization over six years was that some promises just didn’t matter.

Did you get to change anything?

Yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this government has made some positive steps … Things that we did around Syrian refugees. … There’s been some movement in terms of Indigenous issues, although it’s been minor and nowhere near the transformative change that I was promised. I don’t regret the path I’ve taken in federal politics or decisions that I’ve made.

I will forever look back on being the minister of justice and attorney-general fondly. One of the most meaningful and emotional, one of the first things that we did, was around medical assistance in dying. Changing for the better, in my view, the judicial-appointments process [and] opening up how, as the attorney-general, I made decisions on the Charter and changing and providing direction to litigators within the DOJ around Indigenous litigation. Those are things that I’m incredibly proud of.

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So what promises didn’t matter then?

The first realization that I had was around the 180-degree turn on electoral reform. That was one. And one of the major reasons why I got involved in federal politics was to transform the nature of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government – and transform it in the sense of ensuring that the relationship was based on the recognition of rights. That’s what the Prime Minister promised over and over again, and that’s what has not been done.

In 2013, you came to Ottawa with the Idle No More campaign and you spoke with Stephen Harper about self-government. You were frustrated that he said the Indian Act should be changed, but it’s complicated. You felt you had shown him a way to do it. Do you feel that way about Justin Trudeau?

I feel that way about Justin Trudeau. Absolutely. I was the regional chief at the time, when we had a number of meetings with then-prime minister Harper and I presented the same solutions and not just my solutions, but solutions that come from decades of leadership among Indigenous peoples, from royal commissions to reports that recommend self-determination and self-government moving away from the Indian act. And we haven’t – and this includes this government – had a government that was willing to do the hard work that is necessary. This government has fallen into the past patterns that all previous governments have fallen into. Making excuses, lofty rhetoric and just platitudes over actually doing the work that we know needs to be done, as Indigenous peoples and increasingly, thankfully, Canadians.

You’ve talked about leadership more than a few times recently. One time it was in a statement that you made when you refused unanimous consent for a Bloc Québécois motion that said Quebec could change the Constitution unilaterally. Who lacks leadership?

This is a case [of] the nature of partisan politics and jockeying for position in terms of acquiring votes in elections. In my view, that was the case. And there weren’t any leaders of any of the parties that stood up and did what I think and believe to this day to be the right thing, to stand up for the Constitution and not just simply do what is politically expedient, looking for votes in Quebec. Any change to our Constitution in my view requires robust conversation, requires study and there was no leadership. Not by the Prime Minister, not by any of the leaders of the federal parties. I was shocked that I was the only voice that said no.

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When you were named to cabinet back in 2015, and you were named justice minister, Justin Trudeau said cabinet government was back. Was it? Did you function as a team?

You know, things change over time. In the early days of the government, I think there were files, many of which I had carriage of, that ministers were left relatively alone to get the job done. One of those was around medical assistance in dying, another was around getting up and running on cannabis legalization and regulation. Out of the gate, there was more independence. As time moved on, it was my experience that government by cabinet was somewhat of an illusion. There was more control that was exerted as time went on by the Prime Minister’s Office, by unelected, unaccountable people in that office. And that was not what I signed up for.

Did you feel handled by the PMO?

Yeah, I think that there definitely were elements of being handled. I never had the phone number of the Prime Minister. I don’t know if other ministers did, but I certainly didn’t have a cellphone number. I had to go through [the Prime Minister’s principal secretary] Gerry [Butts] or the PMO switchboard. From my perspective, I would think that for the Prime Minister, for the small number of people that are supposed to be his closest advisers, that the relationship should have been closer.

Wilson-Raybould leaves Parliament Hill after a short visit in Ottawa on April 2, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Ethics Commissioner found that Mr. Trudeau sought to improperly influence your decision. Your former cabinet colleague Jane Philpott once said the Prime Minister should have apologized, and moved on. Was that possible?

I think I had said this publicly, and I said this privately to the Prime Minister: I believe when something goes wrong, that you do apologize for it and you work to fix it. I mean, it depends on what the Prime Minister knew or didn’t know, what he was involved with, or wasn’t involved with.

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What do you think now? Could it have been fixed? You had talks about staying.

I think the Prime Minister should have told the truth to Canadians.

Did he, in the end?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think so. My view is very different from his. He did change his lines over and over again at the very beginning. But I mean, the Ethics Commissioner confirmed all of what I said in my testimony before the justice committee. The Prime Minister was in a conflict of interest for inappropriately pressuring me.

I think the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office have their own interpretations of what they feel transpired. One of them you’ve already mentioned is how there was a breakdown of trust between Gerry and I. I don’t ascribe to that rationale. I certainly don’t think that people – as they say – experience things differently. There is no way to experience pressuring the independent attorney-general to do something that’s against the law – there’s no way to experience that differently in my view.

You have a book, entitled “Indian” in the Cabinet, coming out soon. Have you written about those things in the book?

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Yeah, I have. It’s coming out in September. I’ve written about my six years as an MP, certainly as a cabinet minister in the government.

And is it going to be explosive, in your view?

[Laughs] I don’t know about explosive but I imagine it will raise some eyebrows. As the title implies, it’s telling the truth about my experience and what I learned from my experience and provides some pathways forward based on that experience and how we can improve our democracy from an insider’s perspective. So I hope it’s interesting for people.

When you were B.C. regional chief, you suggested that female chiefs weren’t heard as readily as male chiefs. After you and Jane Philpott were expelled from caucus, the opposition said Justin Trudeau and his government don’t listen to women the way they promised to. Is that true?

Definitely that’s true. A lot of things I write about and themes in my book touches on that. Touches on the way I think government should work and the way government actually works, touches on the continued presence of racism, discrimination, misogyny, touches on who I am as an Indigenous person and my world view and how that world view wasn’t accepted in many circles within this place.

What do you mean by that? Your world view wasn’t accepted?

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I’m proud to be an Indigenous person from the West Coast and when I was elected an MP, and certainly when I was appointed [minister of justice and attorney-general], I came to it with a fundamentally different world view. One of the bases of that, coming from Indigenous politics, is that we don’t have political parties. I function and have been taught values and principles of making decisions as much as possible by way of consensus, and that all people have roles and views that are important in society in order for society to function well, that those roles need to be fulfilled. And those views need to be heard to make sustainable long-term solutions. I came to those roles of MP and being the minister of justice with that background and it was my view that diversity mattered. And that different opinions mattered. But like the title of my book, “Indian” in the Cabinet, I found that I was simply an “Indian” in the cabinet and that my Indigenous world view was something that was good for checking off boxes, but certainly wasn’t something that was incorporated into decision making.

They intended a bit of tokenism, from your view.

Absolutely. I was a woman. I tick boxes. I was smart, you know, all these other kind of things. But it becomes problematic when tokenism is just that. I think the leader that actually brings together a diverse team with various expertise on different areas will be a transformative leader. If you listen to those diverse experiences, that’s the world view that I come from. You make better decisions, more sound decisions when you take into account all views and not create artificial barriers between good ideas. For example, because a good idea comes from a different political party, it should be cast aside. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy.

You ran in 2019 as an Independent. You didn’t have to worry too much about party lines, but then you’re not in the governing caucus, or any caucus. Does being an Independent MP work?

I think it does. I think we need definitely more Independent MPs, and that doesn’t mean being elected as an Independent, necessarily.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against political parties, but when it reaches the point of blind loyalty, or again, when you’re in the party or in the caucus, diverse views being suppressed or marginalized because of a party view – that’s problematic for democracy. That’s how we need to revisit political parties and our institutions.

What’s next for you? People have asked if you’re going to run to be mayor of Vancouver. Have you got a plan?

I haven’t made any definitive decisions. I am keeping my options open. People have approached me to do many different things – which I’m grateful for, that people have and show confidence in me – mayor of Vancouver, people have asked me about provincial politics. I am actually not looking at any formal political role at any level right now. I’m looking forward to continuing to have conversations around Indigenous issues and my book coming out, which touches on democracy and climate change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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