Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould came to office with an extensive mandate. She is one of the busiest, most active members of Cabinet, and MLI is delighted to name her Policy-Maker of the Year.

By Kate Heartfield, Dec. 19, 2017

In her first speech as Canada’s Justice Minister, early in 2015, Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke about the values she was taught in a matrilineal, communitarian Indigenous society.

“Our whole system was and is about balance,” she told a crowd at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.

Two years later, in Ottawa’s hyperpartisan corridors, with a stack of highly charged social and justice issues on her desk, the right balance is never easy to achieve.

Advocates of justice reform criticize her for being too slow to address the many ways in which that system is broken. At the same time, the Opposition is constantly pushing against a Liberal justice agenda that social conservatives characterize as a reckless attempt at social engineering.

“She has been one of the busiest and most active ministers just on the policy file alone,” says Emmett Macfarlane, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo whose research focuses on rights, governance and public policy. “My appraisal of that is that she has also been one of the most competent and successful ministers in handling a set of difficult files.”

If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want to make a lasting impact on Canadian society, the justice file is key. If they want to change the way Canada deals with social problems such as poverty and racial injustice, they have to change the Criminal Code and reform the court system. If they want to achieve any measure of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, then more than 150 years of colonialism will have to be stripped out of Canada’s laws.

If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want to make a lasting impact on Canadian society, the justice file is key.

Two years into the job, Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney General says she still sees her role as correcting imbalance: “Balance between a diversity of views. Balance between ensuring rights of individuals to participate in our democracy. It comes from the values that I learned from a really young age, that everybody in our community has a role to play. When people are prevented from playing a role, then the community suffers.”

Wilson-Raybould, 46, grew up and was educated in British Columbia. She comes from the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples of Vancouver Island. Her grandmother, Ethel Pearson, or Pugladee, was the matriarch of their clan and her father, Bill Wilson, is a hereditary chief.

After Wilson-Raybould was elected, the Internet was charmed by video from 1983 of Wilson confronting then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. “I have two children in Vancouver Island,” said Wilson, “both of whom for some misguided reason say they want to be a lawyer. Both of whom want to be the Prime Minister. Both of whom, Mr. Prime Minister, are women.”

There was general laughter, which tells you something about 1983.

“Tell them I’ll stick around till they’re ready,” the elder Trudeau quipped.

The pre-teen Jody Wilson-Raybould watched that exchange on television, and while it’s true that she grew up planning to be a lawyer, the bit about wanting to be Prime Minister was her father’s rhetorical flourish.

Wilson-Raybould carries the Kwak’wala name Puglaas, which means “woman born to noble people.” (It’s her Twitter handle.) The name was given to her when she was a child, at a potlatch. Potlatches are a system of governance that involve dancing and speeches, the giving of names and the distribution of gifts and property.

From 1884 to 1951, the assimilationist government of Canada outlawed potlatches, and participation in them was an offence punishable by imprisonment.

Wilson-Raybould studied at the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia and was called to the bar in 2000. She worked as a provincial Crown prosecutor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She became a policy advisor to the BC Treaty Commission in 2003 and was elected to council of the We Wai Kai Nation in 2009. From 2009 until 2015, she served as Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations.

Perry Bellegarde, who is now the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), got to know her during those years. “She’s very principled. She’s fair, transparent. Those are strengths that she’s going to need as Attorney general and minister of justice. And she’s professional.”

In 2013, Justin Trudeau came to an AFN meeting in Whitehorse. He sat down with Wilson-Raybould, 30 years after their fathers traded barbs. He asked her if she would consider running, and invited her to chair the Liberal convention in Montreal the following year. In 2015, she ran and won the seat in the new riding of Vancouver Granville. On Nov. 4, 2015, she was sworn in as Justice Minister and Attorney General.

The mandate letter she received from the Prime Minister is exhausting even to read.

Wilson-Raybould came into office with a mandate to, among other things, respond to the Supreme Court decision on physician-assisted death, help develop the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, review the government’s litigation strategy, repair several major aspects of the criminal justice system, help guide the legalization and regulation of marijuana, change the laws regarding national security and guns, introduce legislation to prohibit some forms of discrimination against transgender people — all this while serving as the Crown’s chief law officer and as the legal advisor to cabinet, and while dealing with new events and circumstances as they arise.

She’s also been busy with judicial appointments and is proud of the work that she’s been able to do there.

Beyond all that, she’s had to meet the less tangible expectations that come with being a role model, as the first Indigenous person (and only the third woman) to hold that job.

“She has earned a reputation,” says Macfarlane, “not just for having a steady hand on the wheel but for initiating a whole set of successful policy changes, just in terms of the bills that have gone through Parliament under her portfolio.”

Her political successes this year include the passage of Bill C-16, which amends the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code to add gender identity and expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination. It received royal assent in June.

“That to me was a big highlight,” she recalls, “because I saw the advocates who have been working on achieving the ends of C-16 for decades and the emotion on their faces when the bill received royal assent was something that I’ll never forget.”

She’s also been busy with judicial appointments and is proud of the work that she’s been able to do there, and on her work advising the Prime Minister when it comes to the Supreme Court. Trudeau announced the nomination of Sheilah Martin to the Supreme Court in November.

“It is an incredible responsibility for a gal that is from the west coast of British Columbia who went to law school at UBC,” says Wilson-Raybould. “I could never have imagined me being in a position where I could assist a prime minister in charting, essentially, for the legal community, the Supreme Court of Canada for the next 15 years. That’s what we see with Justice Martin; she’s 60 years old and could sit on the court until she’s 75.”

But when it comes to her policy impact on Canada’s justice system so far, Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt calls the pace “disappointing.”

“There’s been a stunning lack of advancement on the criminal legislation that has been introduced,” says Spratt, who is a partner at Abergel Goldstein & Partners. “What has been introduced is rather unambitious, save for the medical assistance in dying bill, which is one of the highlights of her tenure thus far.”

The bills on cannabis and impaired driving, he says, “have from the perspective of the defence bar missed the mark and are very problematic.”

Wilson-Raybould has started to deal with some of the problems in the Canadian court system, but Spratt says one likely explanation for the slowness on this file is that criminal justice has become intensely politicized.

Take, as one example of this, an exchange from May in the justice committee. Conservative MP Ted Falk listed bills related to medical assistance in dying, the transgender rights bill, a repeal of a sexual offence in the Criminal Code that targeted gay men, and safe injection sites. Falk asked the justice minister: “These pieces of legislation seem to have a particular theme to them and I’m wondering what is it that motivates your government to, in my opinion, be so bent on and recklessly determined to destroy our social and moral fabric?”

Wilson-Raybould responded that she wouldn’t apologize for upholding Charter rights. “We are making decisions as a government that ensures we uphold what makes this country great, which is its diversity. We benefit from having a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and it is my most important job, that we ensure that we uphold those rights. If I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be doing my job. I will not apologize for those pieces of legislation but I will stand up and shout from the rooftops as to the substantive public policy that stands behind each of those.”

If every piece of legislation becomes a front in a culture war, that takes time – and that even scarcer commodity, political courage.

Spratt says the polarization on criminal justice policy will make Wilson-Raybould’s job even more difficult now that the Liberals are well past their honeymoon period.

“I can understand impatience. I am impatient as well,” says Wilson-Raybould. She says she’s been talking with her provincial counterparts and with Canadians across the country to identify priorities and is planning “bold” reforms. “It’s something that I’m deeply committed to and I want to make sure that when we introduce reforms, it benefits from broad consultation and dialogue and debate… When all of those voices are heard and reflected in the public policy decisions that we make, I hope that the hyper-partisan nature of the reality that we live in dissipates somewhat.”

An overhaul of the Criminal Code is not the only major review on Wilson-Raybould’s to-do list. Early in 2017, the Prime Minister announced a working group of ministers charged with reviewing all laws and policies related to Indigenous peoples, with Wilson-Raybould as chair.

Bellegarde says one of the major benefits to having someone of Wilson-Raybould’s background in the job is that Indigenous people have not had to spend time educating a new minister about basic concepts such as treaty rights.

“We both agree that we need to move beyond the Indian Act and exert First Nations jurisdiction and sovereignty, and move back to nation to nation. That’s the work we need to do together, collectively. And having an individual with her background and her experience in a very key position, as the Attorney General of Canada, will mean we’re going to get better policy and better legislation, and more sensitivity to First Nations law and jurisdiction and inherent rights and treaty rights.”

Wilson-Raybould says a lot of the government’s early work on reconciliation has been internal or in consultation with Indigenous communities

Part of the task of reconciliation is the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Another part is the inquiry on missing and murdered women, which has been so plagued by bureaucratic tangles, delays and resignations that Wilson-Raybould’s father called it a “bloody farce” in the summer. There are the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to implement. All of this is informed, or should be, by the nearly 22-year-old recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Wilson-Raybould says a lot of the government’s early work on reconciliation has been internal or in consultation with Indigenous communities, laying the groundwork for more visible changes. Carolyn Bennett is the Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern affairs, and Jane Philpott is the minister of Indigenous services.

“I’m proud to be a part of that,” says Wilson-Raybould, “working with my colleagues Ministers Bennett and Philpott and under the Prime Minister. I believe that our relationship with Indigenous peoples will be one of the lasting legacies of our government.”

Wilson-Raybould says her greatest challenge so far has been balancing all her duties as MP of a Vancouver riding, as Attorney General and as Justice Minister. She’s working harder than she’s ever worked, she says, but wouldn’t change it.

Jumping into the world of partisan politics has also been a contrast, in some ways, to her former life in First Nations politics and activism.

“Debate on public policy sometimes gets lost in the wrangling of partisan politics. I know that’s the reality of life here and it’s always going to be that way. But there are issues that are so important that require a non-partisan approach to their resolution. Issues like the environment and climate change. Issues like the recognition of Indigenous peoples within our constitutional fabric. If I can bring anything I know I bring this to my role and try to work in this regard with every member of Parliament and try to work toward consensus around issues that require the investment of all members of Parliament and the investment of all Canadians.”

Kate Heartfield is an Ottawa-based writer and editor. She is the former editorial-pages editor for the Ottawa Citizen, and teaches journalism at Carleton University.