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New horizons

Cover Story
|Written By Elizabeth Thompson
New horizons

It’s where the criminal law drafted in government offices meets the gritty reality of the streets. Homeless men lie passed out near the door of Vancouver’s Main Street courthouse. Drug syringes litter the ground.

Indigenous women, like those who have been murdered or gone missing, dot the court docket. That courthouse is also where new federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould got her trial by fire as a lawyer — an experience that influences her to this day. “I certainly look to my years as a prosecutor on the Downtown Eastside that opened my eyes wider to a lot of the inequalities that exist, that continue to exist in our society,” she says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took many observers by surprise last November when he chose Wilson-Raybould, who turns 45 this month, to become Canada’s justice minister and attorney general — the first indigenous Canadian to ever fill that role.

The task she faces became even more obvious when the government made public her mandate letter; a daunting list filled with legally complex and hot-button, emotionally charged issues. Review the government’s litigation strategy. Modernize Canada’s criminal justice system. Conduct a review of the Harper government’s tough-on-crime changes. Draft legislation to allow physician-assisted death by the deadline imposed by the Supreme Court. Launch an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. Restore a modern court challenges program. Toughen the laws and bail conditions in cases of domestic assault. Overhaul controversial Conservative anti-terrorism Bill 51 and Bill 42 on firearms. Make gender identity prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Legalize marijuana.

Wilson-Raybould knows she’s got her work cut out for her, describing the challenge ahead as “overwhelming” but “a tremendous opportunity.” She tells Canadian Lawyer, “It’s a tremendous honour to be here but it is going to take a lot of work and it is going to take the support of lawyers right across the country and Canadians.”

If she appears unafraid to tackle a challenge that might make others flinch, it comes as no surprise to those closest to her, who paint a picture of someone fearless and adventurous — even as a young child.

Lawyer Kory Wilson, who recently became executive director of aboriginal initiatives and partnerships for the British Columbia Institute of Technology, says her younger sister was sometimes a bit too fearless. “I remember one time in Victoria there was an abandoned house and there was a bee’s nest. As soon as I saw it, I ran away, but she went to investigate and see if there were actually bees in there. I was quite a distance away when, of course, all of the bees came out of the nest and they were stinging her and she was running towards me. She has had stitches — I have never had any stitches. So she has always just gone for it.”

Her father, hereditary chief Bill Wilson, describes Wilson-Raybould as a smart and adventurous child.

“Kory would be sitting under a tree reading and Jody would be up in the tree dropping apples on her or else she would be trying to fly off the roof or trying to do something silly,” he says.

The two sisters in Italy during a backpacking trip in the early ’90s.

Wilson-Raybould admits she didn’t shy away from adventure. “I have to say that I was a curious kid and I got in trouble from time to time. But I had a great upbringing. I was exposed to many things — both in the political world through my father and my grandmother and beyond, but was given tremendous opportunities to explore and to be exposed to many different people beyond the small community where I grew up in.”

She was born in Vancouver where her father was studying law at the University of British Columbia and became only the second aboriginal student to graduate from the law school. She comes from the Musgamagw-Tsawataineuk/Laich-Kwil-Tach people of Northern Vancouver Island. Much of her childhood was spent in Cape Mudge on Quadra Island and in Comox, where her grandmother Ethel Pearson, known as Pugladee, was the matriarch of their Eagle clan. It was there, often over tea and homemade bread on her grandmother’s porch or attending a meeting with her outspoken, political father, that she learned about the culture and the values of her people.

“I worshipped my dad when I was young and had the opportunities to travel with him,” Wilson-Raybould recalls. “He instilled in me, as did my grandmother, the values that I carry to this day in terms of knowing who I am and understanding my culture and the laws of our Big House, which is our system of government, and ensuring that I never forget where I come from. For me those teachings have enabled  . . . me to harness the opportunities to ensure that not only do I do my part to create the space for indigenous people and others generally to improve their quality of life [but] to recognize that everybody plays a role in the community.”

When she was five, her grandmother held a naming potlatch and gave Wilson-Raybould the name Puglaas, which means “a woman born to noble people.” (Her Twitter account is @puglaas). In her clan,  she is a Hiligaxste’, a role that translates as one who “corrects the chiefs path” — perhaps an apt role for Canada’s new attorney general.

Bill Wilson credits his first wife, Sandra, with raising their daughters after the two divorced. “They were basically raised by a single mother and I was travelling the country. I was an Indian politician at a very young age and I was very seldom around.”

Only 14 months apart, Wilson-Raybould and her sister were very close growing up and remain so. They were on the same swimming and track and field teams. They graduated law school together in 1999.

Kory Wilson says her sister is smart, practical, and a good judge of character — qualities that will serve her well as justice minister. “She’s not swayed by emotion. She has been attacked in many different ways by people and she carries herself with class. She keeps on the high road, if you will. She’s tenacious. She doesn’t rattle. Methodical. Thorough. You see a problem and either put it into [an]action plan or you keep dwelling on the problem, but she’ll come up with an action plan,” she says. “She is an incredibly hard worker. The only thing I would like to see is to make sure she takes a little more personal time and looks after herself as well because she has a tendency to just jump in both feet first. I don’t mean that in the sense that she doesn’t look to where she’s jumping, but she’s all in, she’s all in with everything that she does.”

Their upbringing will also influence how she approaches her new job, Kory Wilson predicts. “We were raised to make a difference and to make use of the skills that we have. The creator has given us certain skills and opportunities and we have to make sure that we give back and use them in a way to make life better for people and for aboriginal people.”

Wilson-Raybould says it was always presumed when she was growing up that she would play a leadership role in the community. “That wasn’t necessarily taking an elected leadership role. I was taught that leadership comes in many forms and that each person in a community has a role to play, and if you’re inhibited from playing that role then the community suffers.”

In 1983, when she was only 12, her father, who was negotiating at a conference to convince the federal government to include an aboriginal rights section in the 1982 Constitutional Act, announced to then prime minister Pierre Trudeau that his daughters wanted to be lawyers — and prime minister. “I have two children in Vancouver Island, both of whom for some misguided reason say they want to be a lawyer,” he said in the video of the exchange that resurfaced after Wilson-Raybould was named to cabinet. “Both of whom want to be the prime minister. Both of whom, prime minister, are women.” In response, Trudeau quipped, “Tell them I’ll stick around until they’re ready.”

After completing a BA in poli-sci and history at the University of Victoria in 1996, Wilson-Raybould followed in her father’s footsteps to UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. “I learned amazing things when I was in law school, certainly, and I think have provided me with significant complement or background to my teachings as a young person and throughout the course of my life to bring me to where I am.”

After graduating in 1999 and being called to the bar in 2000, the sisters both headed for the Vancouver courthouse — Wilson-Raybould in the Crown’s office while her sibling became a defence lawyer. “First off, you have to know your stuff inside and out,” Kory Wilson recalls. “You have to be able to think on your feet quickly. You have to be able to think in a non-emotional, non-biased way. You have to be able to analyze or critique things very quickly and you have to be able to deal with all kinds of people.”

Her sister says, “I became a prosecutor because I really liked being in court and as a provincial Crown prosecutor I was in court almost every day. It gave me a large familiarity with the Criminal Code and the day to day realities of being a prosecutor.”

At first, Wilson-Raybould handled cases from petty theft to armed robbery, working her way up to having her own courtroom. It was also during that time she saw firsthand the impact of government budget cuts to victims services. “When I was a prosecutor, when I first started, we enjoyed the benefits of having a more robust victims services support but I found over time there were cutbacks to victims services.”

Working in the Downtown Eastside also shaped her perceptions of the relationship between Canada’s indigenous peoples and the legal system. “I always knew that there was an overrepresentation of indigenous peoples and vulnerable people in the criminal justice system but it became certainly more pronounced to me being down there for almost four years. It was a great experience. It was an eye opening experience. It reconfirmed for me the commitment to public service and the importance of it.”

Vancouver defence lawyer Terry La Liberté says Wilson-Raybould quickly earned a reputation as someone who was smart, fair, and a skilled prosecutor. “Everybody who had dealings with her knew that she was a person of her word and had compassion — excellent trial skills, of course — but also compassion and knew what the real role of a prosecutor was,” he says. “She has been here. She has actually talked to the people who are affected. She has worked with these people and made choices about their future in a really meaningful way.”

In 2003, Haida leader Miles Richardson, then chief commissioner for the B.C. Treaty Commission, wooed Wilson-Raybould away from the prosecutor’s office to work with the commission, which oversees treaty negotiations across British Columbia.

The B.C. Treaty Commission can be controversial in the province, explains Kory Wilson. “There are those people who are adamantly opposed to the treaty process and there are people who have embraced it so much so that they have created their own treaty. So there are all of these opposing views and they have to be balanced.”

Don Rusnak met Wilson-Raybould at the commission when he was a young lawyer eager to change the world quickly. What he learned from Wilson-Raybould was the importance of pragmatism and being able to bring people together. She had “excellent relationships with the federal negotiators, the provincial British Columbia negotiators, and First Nations negotiators,” says Rusnak, who was elected for the federal Liberals in the riding of Thunder Bay-Rainy River last October. “She brought people together when I was there and taught me that that was extremely important — relationships and bringing people together.”

It was during her years working with the commission that she met her husband Tim Raybould, a Cambridge-educated management and public policy consultant who works with First Nations. Together, they have run the KaLoNa Group, a consulting firm that does work for First Nations governments. “[She] and her husband are a very strong team,” says Kory Wilson. “They work together very well. Tim is very much involved in a lot of the discussions and thinking of a better way and a better world, if you want to say, or a better Canada.”

In 2009, Wilson-Raybould followed her father into First Nations politics as a councillor for the We Wai Kai Nation and regional chief for the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations — the only woman among the regional chiefs. There, she focused on questions such as good governance, empowering First Nations to improve their economies, and realizing the promise of the recognition of treaty rights in s. 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act. She also served as a director of the First Nations’ Land Advisory Board and chaired the First Nations Finance Authority, which provides financing, investment, and advisory services for First Nations governments.

Wilson-Raybould says her time as a regional chief contributed to the decision to run for the Liberal party. “I look to my over 10 years of elected experience . . . as being, probably, the biggest catalyst that led me down the path to put my name forward in federal politics.”

She got a taste of the uglier side of politics during a special chiefs assembly in Ottawa in 2014 — in an incident that makes the heckling she will now have to face in the House of Commons during Question Period pale by comparison. Her older sister was there when some of the delegates tried to shout Wilson-Raybould down as she spoke to a motion. “I wanted to just get in there and start screaming and protecting her,” Kory Wilson recalls, getting emotional about it even today. “It was horrible. I was bursting into tears and so were other people standing around her

. . . standing behind her while these other people are just treating her like crap. She kept her voice relatively calm. She didn’t have tears come to her eyes and she just waited until they stopped and she just politely said, ‘May I speak now. May I speak now.’ Eventually, they stopped and allowed her to speak.

“She would just stand there. It was just so brilliant; it was amazing. It happened on the floor of the assembly and as it went on more and more people came and stood behind her.”

Her father points out First Nations politics is not for the faint of heart. “The thing that I think gave her some qualifications is that she got to travel and then she got to see internal Indian politics and there is nothing tougher, nothing uglier, nothing harder than native Indian politics and I can tell you that from 60 years of experience,” he says. “That’s really a great training ground for white politics . . . which I find to be very simple.”

It was at the First Nations crown gathering with Stephen Harper in 2012 that Wilson-Raybould took another step down the path to federal politics after she realized that Harper had little interest in the work that she and others had put into proposing solutions. “That’s where, I guess I would say, things crystallized for me in the sense of what I was going to do in terms of my political positions or putting my name forward to be an MP . . . . We worked really hard at the time and I know the leadership is still working hard to ensure that they present thoughtful solutions and then the frustration came when those thoughtful solutions weren’t heard.”

A year later, Wilson-Raybould found someone interested in listening when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau attended an Assembly of First Nations meeting in Whitehorse and sat in on a session on land claims that she chaired. He arranged to meet privately with her afterwards and encouraged her to run for the Liberal Party. In July 2014, despite grumbling that the party had used moral suasion to convince prospective challengers to step aside, Wilson-Raybould was acclaimed as the Liberal candidate in the newly created riding of Vancouver Granville and in 2015 went on to win the riding.

While Wilson-Raybould was on every observer’s short list for a cabinet post, it took many by surprise when Trudeau named the rookie MP justice minister. Few people were happier than her father. “I was just glad that she didn’t get the asshole of cabinet, which would be Indian Affairs, because it always has been a completely incompetent and inept department,” he says bluntly, pointing out that the justice department and the prime minister’s office are where real progress can be made.

Since she was sworn in, her schedule has been a whirlwind with people vying for even small blocks of her time. She is inheriting a Department of Justice that has been hard hit over the past several years. The Harper government was in open warfare with the Supreme Court of Canada, convinced that the will of Parliament should take precedence over the Charter of Rights. The Supreme Court struck down a number of laws, ruling they contravened the Charter. Challenges of other laws adopted by the Conservatives are still making their way through the courts.

Staff in the justice department has dropped to 4,399 in 2014 from 4,812 in 2006. Roughly 100 of the 413 full-time jobs lost were lawyers. At one point, morale was so low that one lawyer in the aboriginal law section who had pre-existing mental health problems committed suicide. Len MacKay, president of the Association of Justice Counsel, says morale has picked up a bit since the election and the union, which represents justice department lawyers, is pleased with Wilson-Raybould’s appointment.

However, he also recognizes that her mandate letter spells out a long list of things she is expected to accomplish. “It’s quite ambitious so that is what she has to look towards — dealing with a lot of stuff that the Harper government left behind and probably other things that have evolved over the last couple of years in the courts,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a difficult sort of task for her to do things like assisted suicide and legalizing marijuana. But those are things that any minister would have to face.”

Wilson-Raybould says the part of her mandate letter that resonates with her the most is not necessarily the daunting to-do list but the opening paragraphs that are contained in every minister’s letter, describing how the Liberals intend to be a government of cabinet and work together as a team. “As the minister and the attorney general, we have thousands upon thousands of cases that we have before the courts, but as the minister of justice recognize that we can and must do better as a government to ensure that in every decision that we make — whether we are talking about climate change or looking to renegotiate a health accord, that we’re doing it in a collaborative way.”

Wilson-Raybould also sees Canada’s legal system as one of its selling points on the world stage. “People can come here and ensure that their differences will be respected and that their contributions to the country will be respected.”

The fact that some of the things she has been asked to accomplish were already underway before she became minister will help, says Wilson-Raybould. “In terms of what my priority is, some of the mandate bullets were already deeply rooted in terms of discussions and actions — whether we’re talking about physician-assisted dying or murdered and missing women, we’re looking at marijuana or developing a framework for an approach to review our justice system.”

Litigation review is already underway. “We’re already deeply engaged in our litigation review and we will continue to be,” Wilson-Raybould explains. “We certainly have taken action since I have entered into this role. Our litigation review will be consistent with the direction that we have been given to ensure that they are consistent with our commitments — whether that be in the area of indigenous peoples or with respect to veterans or immigration — that they uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our values.”

Some litigation has already been dropped. In November, the government abandoned its appeal of a Federal Court ruling that struck down the Conservative government’s rule prohibiting a woman from taking the oath of citizenship with a niqab covering the lower part of her face. In December, the government dropped the appeal of a Federal Court decision that found that government cuts to refugee health benefits were unconstitutional.

“I have the utmost respect for our institutions of government and that includes the judiciary and decisions our courts make,” says Wilson-Raybould. “I have the responsibility in this position, one, and in my own mandate letter, to review legislation from the previous government and to review our approach to litigation. I see that as a huge responsibility, occupying a lot of — necessarily so — my time.”

Ensuring that legislation the government drafts is Charter compliant and that there are “substantive discussions among Parliamentarians” will be a priority, she says. “One of the things for us moving forward into our mandate is ensuring that underlying all the decisions that we make is the utmost respect for the Charter and our values and ensuring that we’re open and transparent as a government.”

MacKay predicts the Liberal government will be less likely to risk laws being struck down by the courts on Charter grounds. The Harper government “had difficulty producing Charter-compliant legislation at times.

I suspect this government isn’t going to have that difficulty.”

MacKay, who works as a Crown prosecutor in Halifax, says one of the toughest challenges Wilson-Raybould may face is fulfilling the Liberal Party’s promise to legalize marijuana. “I would think the legalization and regulation of marijuana looks like a pretty big one compared with the rest,” he says.

“That’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, I think, and will take probably several years to develop.

But then it was one of their campaign platforms so they pretty much have to follow up on that.”

Wilson-Raybould is already working on a game plan. “I never smoked marijuana. . . . That’s my personal choice. In terms of legalizing and, more importantly, strictly regulating marijuana, I am working with the ministers of health and public safety to put in place a framework to approach legalization and regulation and we have committed to putting in place a task force that will work with the provinces and the territories and other stakeholders to ensure that we approach this in a comprehensive way and ensure that people’s voices are heard. And that ultimately we keep it out of the hands of kids and the proceeds out of the hands of criminals.”

Some are hoping Wilson-Raybould’s experience as a Crown will influence her decisions on mandatory minimum sentences. Vancouver’s La Liberté says judges are appalled by the mandatory minimums and have been “throwing out cases on the most specious arguments because they didn’t like it being forced down their throat. Right now with these mandatory sentences, there’s almost more discretion in the prosecutor than there is in the judge.”

Wilson Raybould says she will be looking at the 51 new mandatory minimum sentences introduced over the past 10 years.

After her experience as a prosecutor on those gritty streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside she recognizes the need for judges to be able to exercise discretion. “I think that we need to understand when it comes to vulnerable people, particularly, that come before the criminal justice system that there are other reasons other than being inherently a criminal. Realities such as poverty, such as addiction, mental health issues, that we collectively as a community need to address — whether that’s being preventative or when they are actually within the criminal justice system, looking at restorative justice measures to do as much as we can to ensure for those people that it’s not a revolving door — that they’re not going to come back based on other issues that they may be having, that we can find a broader approach to ensuring that that door is not revolving.”

  • Director, Wellness Program

    Alexis Ford-Ellis
    I deliver training to Justice employees and in our sessions we are teaching sensitivity of the words we use and language we speak around 'mental health and mental illness', especially when we speak of suicide. The statement "...one lawyer in the aboriginal law section who had pre-existing mental health problems committed suicide." should be rewritten to reflect better language when speaking of mental illness, i.e., "... our colleague who was living with a medical condition died by suicide." To stop the stigma of mental illness, as a community we all need to reflect well spoken and current language regarding mental illness.
    Thank you for such an wonderful well written article of our Minister; overall, it reflects what an amazing woman she is.
    Thank you, Alexis.

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