Jody Wilson-Raybould is the Independent Member of Parliament for the British Columbia riding of Vancouver Granville. She is the author of the new book From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, from which this essay has been adapted.
A central lesson instilled in me from a very young age was to be careful with words because you cannot take them back – you must always speak the truth. This has been a vital teaching and one that has guided me in how I have approached the various roles I have been fortunate to play, including as a Crown prosecutor in Vancouver from 2000 to 2003, as Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for British Columbia from October, 2009, to June, 2015, and as the first Member of Parliament for the riding of Vancouver Granville from October, 2015, to the present. And it guided me when I was subsequently appointed the first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, from November, 2015, to January, 2019.
In these roles and others, I have given numerous speeches and lectures. It is not a task I take lightly. It is a privilege, but moreover, it is a responsibility when speaking on matters where there is urgency in people’s lives and when the words you say might have a substantive impact.
This has given me the opportunity to reflect, in a systematic way, on the Indigenous-Crown relationship and the future of Canada, and I have done so from the unique perspective of having been both an advocate for Indigenous peoples (as Regional Chief ) and then the chief law officer of Canada (as minister of justice and attorney-general).
Creating a more just and equal Canada characterized by transformed relations with Indigenous peoples is a deeply personal matter for me – it is the work I was raised to be a part of. In lighthearted moments, people might hear me refer to myself as “just a little Indian girl from a small fishing village on an island off the west coast of British Columbia.” But when I say this, it is actually expressing much about the multigenerational reality of who I am and where I come from, and why I approach the work of reconciliation the way I do.
I come from the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk/Laich-Kwil-Tach people of northern Vancouver Island, who are part of the Kwakwaka’wakw, also known as the Kwak’wala-speaking peoples.
My society, in important ways, is a matrilineal one. This means that descent is traced and property is inherited through the female line. My grandmother’s name was Pugladee – the highest-ranking name in our Clan, the Eagle Clan. Her name means “a good host” – a name that was given to my older sister, Kory, at the same time I was given my name, Puglaas. Puglaas means “a woman born to noble people.” These names were given in a naming Potlatch at Gilford Island when I was five and my sister six.
In my culture, holding the name Puglaas, like other names, comes with clear expectations, responsibilities and accountabilities. Today, this is the work of helping to carry forward, in an ever-changing world, our communitarian teachings – in which everyone has a role to play, creating a society where our people, and all peoples, can live together in patterns of harmony and unity while upholding, celebrating and respecting the distinctiveness of diverse peoples and the beauty, strength and knowledge they bring to our human family.
This work of reconciliation and nation rebuilding, for myself and for many other Indigenous leaders and people, has also meant telling the history of being resilient and standing firm in the face of colonization and oppression.
While we know the true history of Canada is increasingly being understood, it continues to require retelling, re-examination and reinterpretation. Indeed, and thankfully, young Canadians today grow up knowing about residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Indian Act and the violation of the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples. They also are increasingly aware that the legacy of colonization remains with us, seen in the significant socioeconomic gaps that still exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Canada.
We truly have come a long way. Even a decade ago Canadian society at large was not as broadly conversant about reconciliation. As a country, we are increasingly engaged in the work of reconciliation, and progressive steps are being taken. We are moving from a learning moment to an action moment.
But the optimism comes with a warning. Expectations are high; we are not there yet. We must capitalize on the momentum to ensure that progress continues – to take advantage of it.
This can be a real challenge because sincere intent leads to genuine action, which drives change, and change is hard to implement and sustain. While people often talk about the need for change, actually making it happen is something else. And to be clear, the changes that reconciliation brings are, and will be, significant. They touch on all dimensions of our public and private lives, including how governments make decisions, how economies function, how children are educated, how our justice system operates and is structured, and how our environment is cared for. It is hard work. And not surprisingly, as individuals, we are often confused about what we should be doing. Indeed, in speaking with Canadians across the country, the two questions I am most often asked are “What can I do?” and “How can I make a difference?”
While individual Canadians are acting and seeking further direction on the constructive steps they can take, within government one confronts the challenge of how to shift course when things have been focused in another direction for so long and patterns of behaviour so engrained.
The analogy I often use is that government is like a massive ship that has been heading through the ocean in one way for 150 years. Our task now is to turn that ship and send it off in another direction. I know government systems are not designed to adjust course quickly, and politicians tend to bias the near term, focusing on electoral cycles and prospects. And this is why we must move beyond partisanship: to set and keep the course so that, in time, the ship will inevitably turn.
This analogy can also apply to Indigenous peoples, nations and their evolving governments. In many respects, Indigenous peoples have become accustomed to patterns that have been imposed upon us, including, for First Nations, having our lives controlled and administered by the Indian Act. In the fog created by layers upon layers of colonial imposition – including multiple generations being told that, as “Indians,” they are nothing more than numbers, with identity cards, whose lives and well-being are subject to a system of band administration on a reserve – it is sometimes hard to know what the future could look like and to set the course on how to get there.
For Indigenous peoples, the challenge of breaking out of entrenched patterns becomes heightened and very real as the federal government actually changes its course – as it moves from denial and to rights recognition and support for true nation rebuilding. When real change is happening or on the horizon, Indigenous peoples need to set their own internal course to arrive at a future place where their priorities and visions lead the way.
What is encouraging is that all across the country and within our evolving system of co-operative federalism, Indigenous peoples are exercising their right to self-determination – lifting the fog in different ways and at different paces, striving to emerge into the future they wish to see. They are setting their own internal course to a place where, ultimately, Indigenous governments and nations will be rebuilt, where they will be self-governing over their lands and resources and caring for the well-being of their citizens and others within their jurisdiction. Which raises the question: Has the federal ship’s course correction truly been made to support this work? If not, what more needs to be done? What are the course-setting or course-correcting solutions?
The good news is that we have the solutions. We know what must be done. For decades now, we have had studies, reports and analyses that have identified the paths forward, including the work that must be done by Indigenous peoples, governments, industry and the general public. We also have decades of Indigenous peoples advocating and charting the course forward and building approaches to a new future. We do not need more studies. My message has always been, and continues to be, that it is time to act because we know what actions are needed. We all know what needs to be done but we need to have the courage and the conviction to do it.
To be honest, though, prior to entering federal politics, I never fully considered what it meant to be a feminist or if, indeed, I considered myself a feminist in the sense or ways that the term is often used today. As a Kwakwaka’wakw woman, my roles and responsibilities have always been clear to me and the values of equality, freedom, respect, inclusion and upholding each other emphasized. But being an Indigenous woman in federal politics has caused me to reflect a lot on questions of gender equality, diversity and balance and, in so doing, to see parallels between my personal experience and the historical and continuing struggle of Indigenous peoples in this country.
I was compelled to resign from cabinet on a matter of principle in February, 2019, and was subsequently removed from the Liberal caucus. This experience made me see more clearly than ever that Ottawa, politics and its modes of functioning maintain norms and patterns that are not always compatible with my culture, my worldview, or my gender.
The Canadian government lost an opportunity during the Forty-Second Parliament. Yes, progress was made on Indigenous issues. But we still cannot say with confidence that the ship’s course has been shifted sufficiently to turn it in a new direction – away from denial and toward unqualified recognition.
I initially decided to run to be a Member of Parliament for many reasons – but key among them was the desire to help create the legal and political space for Indigenous peoples to be self-determining, including self-governing. As I have said to countless audiences in Canada and around the world, the fortunes of Canada and Indigenous peoples are intertwined. Rebuilding Indigenous nations will result in a stronger, better Canada, one that will enrich all Canadians. My vision has not changed. To this end, I recently spoke at an honouring ceremony in our Big House in Campbell River. I spoke about how entering mainstream politics and working in the political environment that I now do has heightened my appreciation that there is much Ottawa can learn from Indigenous peoples, from our worldview and our societies. We have legal orders that have survived for millenniums and are very much part of our evolving legal framework in Canada.
When I reflect on what I have learned, I sometimes see an image of the country emerging from darkness, to half-light, to full brightness. As Canada comes to terms with its colonial past and as Indigenous peoples increasingly continue to determine their own futures, the full potential of this country will shine. There is more work to be done, and I am confident it will get done. Reconciliation cannot fail, because Canada cannot fail.