Her docket could hardly be any busier.
For Canada’s first aboriginal federal Justice Minister, the task ahead is replete with the immediate – marijuana legalization, promised changes to a terrorism bill and a framework for assisted suicide – and the longer-term, including a possible rollback of the Conservative government’s tough criminal laws that helped cause the indigenous population in federal jails to spike.
And if that were not enough, as Attorney-General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, 44, is tasked with advising the Prime Minister on legal issues across all of government. Which gives her influence over the reshaping of Canada’s relationship with its First Nations, one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stated priorities, on everything from land claims to education to policing.
And that could mean a shift from the federal government’s traditionally adversarial relationship on land claims and other issues, said John Borrows, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria and a former professor of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s.
“Right now, the litigation files often pit First Nations against the federal government. It’s fair to say that in most ... aboriginal title and treaty cases, the federal government is arrayed against the First Nations and Métis communities. She has options … it doesn’t always have to be on the oppositional side. It’s consistent with the role of the minister of justice to try to facilitate reconciliation and craft litigation opinions that go toward settlement as opposed to ending up in court.”
Josh Paterson, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and a former First Nations lawyer, called the appointment “remarkable and important. For the statement to be made that the Crown justice representative, the leading law officer the Crown has, is going to be an indigenous person – that matters in and of itself.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould is no stranger to busy dockets. As a provincial prosecutor at Vancouver’s Main Street courthouse in Vancouver from 2000 to 2003, at a time when local police were still laying charges for marijuana possession, she was involved when judges regularly dismissed criminal charges because of excessive delay.
She has been immersed in aboriginal issues since childhood, as the daughter of outspoken native leader Bill Wilson – who once told Pierre Trudeau that one of his daughters would be prime minister – and granddaughter of the late aboriginal elder Ethel Pearson. “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree – she’s part of a tradition of social responsibility,” said Terry La Liberté, a Vancouver criminal lawyer. She has been regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations since 2009, and before that a member of the B.C. Treaty Commission, overseeing treaty negotiations between aboriginals and the Crown.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has been an elected councillor of the We Wai Kai Nation and lives in Cape Mudge Village on Quadra Island, according to a Liberal website. Her husband, Tim Raybould, a management consultant who has a PhD from Cambridge University in England, is Westbank First Nation’s chief negotiator for self-government, and senior policy adviser to the First Nations Finance Authority.
Eric Gottardi, a Vancouver defence lawyer, said Crown attorneys and the defence bar are pleased with the appointment. “She worked in the very busiest front-line courthouse that we have in this province.”
He said he expects her to be open to a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and restorative justice, including such measures as restoring the use of house arrest after the Conservatives banned it for more than 30 criminal offences.
Under the Conservatives, dozens of laws setting out mandatory minimum sentences were among those that pushed the aboriginal inmate population to 23.2 per cent in federal jails, although aboriginals make up just four per cent of Canadians. Other laws also fell hard on aboriginals, such as a victim surcharge that the Harper government made mandatory for all convicted criminals, no matter how poor. Aboriginal Canadians who committed mostly minor offences were at the heart of test cases on the law in several provinces.
Ghislain Picard, the Quebec chief of the Assembly of First Nations, applauded the appointment. “The indication Mr. Trudeau has seen fit to nominate one of our people in a very, very high-profile portfolio certainly indicates his willingness to strengthen the relationship with our peoples.”
William Trudell, the head of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said he expects an open, consultative approach that will include police, the Crown, judges and defence lawyers, and that will “enhance justice in this country and internationally.”
Mr. Paterson described Ms. Wilson-Raybould as “very smart. She listens. I think she is going to be very thoughtful about a whole range of changes made by the last government that negatively impacted people’s rights.”