Indigenous leaders and advocates across the country expressed their support for former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould, who spoke out for the first time on the SNC-Lavalin affair and emphasized the connection between her respect for the rule of law and her Indigenous upbringing.
In much-anticipated testimony before the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she was “hounded” by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office and others to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering giant facing charges of fraud and corruption.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was demoted to veterans affairs minister in January and resigned from cabinet earlier this month, ended her opening statement by reiterating her belief that the attorney-general must be non-partisan, transparent and willing to speak truth to power.
“Indeed, one of the main reasons for the urgent need for justice and reconciliation today is that in the history of our country we have not always upheld foundational values such as the rule of law in our relations with Indigenous peoples,” she said. “And I have seen the negative impacts for freedom, equality and a just society this can have firsthand.” She described herself as a “truth-teller” who comes from a long line of matriarchs.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s sister, Kory Wilson, told The Globe and Mail before her sister’s testimony that she is proud of her sibling. “I admire her courage, integrity and commitment to making Canada a better country,” she said in a text message.
The former minister’s words resonated with Indigenous people across the country, from a gathering of B.C. chiefs to social media commentators, legal experts and a former grand chief in northern Manitoba who said Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s remarks amount to “an incredible showing of Indigenous strength and power.”
“It’s reminding Indigenous women and girls that it’s possible to change the narrative,” said Sheila North, a member of Bunibonibee Cree Nation. She said she recorded the testimony and has been revisiting certain portions, including a question-and-answer exchange in which Ms. Wilson-Raybould described herself as a “proud Indigenous person from the West Coast of British Columbia” and said she “would not apologize for being a strong advocate for pursuing transformative change for Indigenous peoples in this country.”
Reached at a chiefs’ council meeting, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) said Ms. Wilson-Raybould – who was until earlier this week entirely bound by solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence – detailed an attempt to “beat her into submission” on the SNC-Lavalin matter. “It makes one more angry about how terribly she was treated, how she was coerced, how she was browbeaten,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said after watching her opening remarks at the meeting. “But at the same time, we’re elated that she’s been vindicated and has had an opportunity to speak her truth.”
Grand Chief Phillip said the revelations only intensified the anger among some Indigenous leaders who were already frustrated and disillusioned by the Liberal government’s handling of key files, including the creation of an Indigenous rights framework – laws and policies that would say the rights of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit do not have to be negotiated.
The Liberals’ first substantial report on the initiative was not well-received, and in mid-September, leaders attending an Assembly of First Nations policy forum said the government was moving too fast. The framework has been put on hold in favour of two standalone laws, one on child and family services, and one on Indigenous languages.
It was this legislation that was the main topic of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s Sept. 17 meeting with the Prime Minister, according to Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council who was at the meeting and last week testified about it and other discussions with the former justice minister. Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the committee on Wednesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau immediately raised the issue of SNC-Lavalin and deferred prosecution agreements. “The Prime Minister asks me to help out – to find a solution here for SNC,” she said. He also stressed that there was a coming election in Quebec and that he is a member of Parliament for that province, she said.
“I was quite taken aback,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told MPs. “My response – and I vividly remember this as well – was to ask the Prime Minister a direct question while looking him in the eye. I asked: ‘Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the attorney-general? I would strongly advise against it.’” Mr. Trudeau, she said, responded by saying: “No, no, no, we just need to find a solution.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge who teaches law at the University of British Columbia, described Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s account of the pressure she endured on the SNC-Lavalin issue as “troubling” – marking a “broken day” for Canada’s reputation as a country that respects the rule of law and prosecutorial independence.
“What I’m seeing when I listen to this is we lost one of the very best attorneys-general we have ever had in Canada – and we lost her not because she did anything inappropriate, we lost her because she stood up for the law appropriately,” said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, a member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. “That makes me feel sad for Canadians, because we deserve better than that.”
With reports from Wendy Stueck and Andrea Woo in Vancouver and Gloria Galloway in Thunder Bay