A conversation with Jody Wilson-Raybould

A novice MP gets a plum role in the new Trudeau government, with responsibility for reshaping First Nations relations and legalizing pot

In 1983, B.C. First Nations leader Bill Wilson told Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau that his two daughters, 14 and 12, both wanted to be prime minister. Everyone laughed. Yet more than 30 years later, Wilson’s younger daughter is now federal justice minister—historically a prominent stepping stone for those seeking Canada’s highest office (including the elder Trudeau). As the first aboriginal justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, 44, has an enormous opportunity to advance the cause of justice for Canada’s indigenous people. However, after a stellar career, including time as a crown prosecutor, B.C. treaty commissioner and elected regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, that’s just one of many issues facing the novice member of Parliament for Vancouver-Granville.

What were your thoughts as you were sworn in as justice minister?
It was an absolutely unpre-cedented day in my life and for many others, including my mother, who was watching at home in my home community of Cape Mudge. I was overwhelmed. I felt a great sense of pride and honour at the tremendous portfolio the prime minister entrusted to me, and an incredible feeling of hope and optimism about what we as a government can achieve. It seems to be a turning point in history.

You’ve talked about improving matters for Canada’s aboriginal people. What can you do as justice minister?
Well, it’s broader than just the justice department. Relationships with indigenous peoples of Canada are of paramount importance, and we are committed to a renewed relationship that is nation-to-nation—that recognizes that solutions to one of the outstanding public policy issues in this country need to be addressed in a substantive way.

But as a former prosecutor, you must have some idea of specific changes needed to do a better job for aboriginal people.
Yes, I was a prosecutor at the Main Street courthouse and witnessed first-hand the over-representation of indigenous people in the system. I am committed to reviewing our litigation strategy and looking at the criminal justice system to ensure our approach is both fair and equal, while recognizing there are many reasons why people end up in the criminal justice system. We need to look at issues of marginalization, issues of poverty and inequality. We need to look at substantively different approaches, including restorative justice and rehabilitation, and ways and means to reduce that dreadful statistic [of aboriginal incarceration].

1.5% of B.C. lawyers are First Nations
4.6%  of B.C.’s population is First Nations
23% of federal prisoners are First Nations

Source: Law Society of British Columbia


With respect to the Tsilhqot’in decision, do you have a message to resource companies about changing their approach to First Nations? 
I was a regional chief when the Tsilhqot’in decision was rendered. What it spoke to was that aboriginal title exists, and there is a fundamental need to reconcile that. Our government has made that commitment. There is an opportunity for me to work with Carolyn Bennett [indigenous affairs minister] and ministers responsible for natural resource development so that the relationship with indigenous people is substantively addressed and engaged when decisions are being made in their territory.

Marijuana—and the promise to legalize it—is an issue that may cause you headaches in your new role. Any idea how legalization might affect the B.C. economy?
Marijuana is a commitment we made—and I, along with my colleagues, will ensure that we put in place a substantive and smart regulatory framework. [Legalization] will definitely have an impact in B.C., perhaps more than in any other part of Canada. It was an issue brought up by many people at the doorstep during the campaign.

The prime minister has not designated a “B.C. minister” to bring B.C. concerns to the table. So how will these decisions be made?
We are a cabinet-driven government. We are committed to working collaboratively to ensure that decisions are taken in a way that embraces and supports consensus. We are not taking a hierarchical approach.

Why did you decide to get involved in politics, and why the Liberals?
My desire stemmed from the time I was regional chief and we had an opportunity to present thoughtful solutions to the prime minister. I found that my voice and the voices of the people I represented were not being heard. I’d met Justin Trudeau, and the approach and values of our now Prime Minister underlie the party and our government. I will continue to embrace these values in whatever is left in my political career.

So maybe your dad was right all along about your becoming prime minister one day.
I have a great deal of respect for my father. I think his comments back in 1983 were reflective of how proud he was of both my sister and me. And maybe he knew something that I didn’t.