Scandal and matriarchy: How Jody Wilson-Raybould makes me want to be a better lawyer

There were so many standout moments from Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Feb. 27. But, for me, one line stood out the most: “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House — this is who I am and who I will always be.”

Jennifer Taylor

There were so many standout moments from Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Feb. 27. But, for me, one line stood out the most:

I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House — this is who I am and who I will always be.”

That’s how Wilson-Raybould — the first Indigenous person to be Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general — concluded her opening statement, drawing on her ancestors, the legal system of the Kwakiutl nation and her own history as an Indigenous woman and lawyer.

 

This one line made me want to be a better lawyer, a better daughter, a better truth teller in my own life.

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was the climax of the SNC-Lavalin scandal that has enveloped Canadian politics for the last month. For context, it happened the same day as Michael Cohen’s testimony before the oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Compared to our force-fed diet of Trump-related scandals, the SNC-Lavalin story has felt, at times, rather quaint and Canadian — even though it stems from criminal charges that the Quebec company bribed Libyan officials to secure contracts. SNC-Lavalin is currently on trial for these charges in Quebec.

 

On Feb. 7, the Globe and Mail reported that Wilson-Raybould had faced pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. The implication: The refusal to oblige was behind her recent cabinet reassignment (some said demotion) from Justice to Veterans Affairs (she has since resigned from cabinet). Instead of continuing with the trial, the political objective would be for the Crown and defence to negotiate a remediation agreement (aka a “deferred prosecution agreement” or “DPA”) under Part XXII.1 of the Criminal Code, a new set of provisions enacted (pretty quietly) last year. This agreement would stay the criminal proceeding and avoid the political and economic ramifications of a criminal conviction for SNC, which employs thousands of Canadians.

 

One of the conditions for a remediation agreement (in s. 715.32(1)(d) of the Criminal Code, for those interested) is that the attorney general must consent to the negotiation of the agreement. There is also power under the Director of Public Prosecutions Act for the attorney general to issue a directive to the director of public prosecutions about the conduct of a specific prosecution. So it is possible, and there are legal routes available, for the attorney general to get involved in a particular case.

 

But she must do so “independently of partisan concerns,” to quote the Supreme Court of Canada in Krieger. As Wilson-Raybould said: “We either have a system that is based on the rule of law, the independence of the prosecutorial functions and respect for those charged to use their discretion and powers in particular ways — or we do not.”

 

In the context of remediation agreements, certain limits on discretion and power are spelled out in the Criminal Code, which provides that: “if the organization is alleged to have committed an offence under section 3 or 4 of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, the prosecutor must not consider the national economic interest, the potential effect on relations with a state other than Canada or the identity of the organization or individual involved.”

 

If the prosecutor is not allowed to consider these factors, then surely it was inappropriate for officials in the PMO and Privy Council Office to attempt to do indirectly what could not be done directly. Pressuring the attorney general to intervene for economic reasons — and reasons related to SNC’s status as a Quebec company — was wrong in principle and (at the very least) contrary to the spirit of the Criminal Code provisions.

 

As we learned from Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, she studied the matter, agreed with the director of public prosecutions that the remediation route was not appropriate and concluded that she would not issue a directive. And yet, the PMO and the Privy Council Office kept pushing (there were 10 phone calls and 10 meetings where 11 people from the PMO and PCO tried to get her to change her mind).

 

This part of the story felt familiar, even if the trappings were more high stakes than the office politics most women lawyers face. Jennifer Ditchburn put it perfectly on Twitter: “The interference, the pressure, but also the mansplaining. So much mansplaining.”

 

Our self-described feminist prime minister and his officials were acting like they knew best and trying to tell a woman how to do her job. But Wilson-Raybould knew her own mind. She knew how to do her own job. And she used matriarchy to stand up to patriarchy.

 

In this unwavering commitment to herself, her identity and her ideals, I see a model for the kind of lawyer I want to be.

 

 

My passion for the law comes from my father, who’s been practising since 1979. But my stubborn need to speak up and speak out is pure matriarchy, coming from the many take-no-prisoners women in my family. Whenever I have a difficult conversation at work where I have to be assertive and unapologetic, I hear my mother’s voice in my head (it’s a mix of “good for you!” vocal fist bumps, with some encouraging swear words thrown in for good measure).

Wilson-Raybould wasn’t just testifying about the political scandal of the day when she called on her “long line of matriarchs.” She was providing a master class in feminist lawyering — one that prioritizes community and justice over political expediency, understands how identity shapes the rule of law and requires studying hard and speaking loud. It's a way of lawyering that says: “This is who I am and who I will always be.”

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