Jody Wilson-Raybould is the independent member of Parliament for the British Columbia riding of Vancouver Granville. She is the author of From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada.
There are few periods in my life where I have felt such intense emotions as in recent weeks. The murder of George Floyd, along with the killing of six Indigenous people by Canadian police since April, has left me outraged and incredibly sad. At the same time, I am not despondent. I have been heartened by the activists and protesters who have taken to streets around the world in a push for systemic change.
I have lately wondered: Are we at a tipping point in the fight against systemic racism and injustice? Is long-overdue transformative change, including in Canada’s justice system, finally upon us?
I believe we are in such a moment, and I am hopeful for our future – I have to be. Actions and protests in support of racial justice are certainly not new. But I, like many others, have been encouraged and emboldened to see young and older Canadians, from all backgrounds and corners of the country, calling for true and fundamental change. Over many generations, some important progress has been made. We now need to build on those successes and accelerate our efforts toward an ever more equal, just, loving and inclusive Canada.
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Indeed, it was not very long ago that such struggles for justice felt far lonelier. As Indigenous leaders, we would sometimes wonder why public awareness was so hard to raise, and where true allies may be found. No longer. And in the broader fight for racial justice for all peoples in Canada, the numbers who have joined our struggle feel larger than ever. We increasingly stand together, and take action together, because we understand that while we have come far, our present reality continues to reflect and rest on certain forms of racism, discrimination, inequality and injustice.
Despite my optimism and hope, there is one critical factor that makes me uncertain about whether we are truly at a tipping point and whether the promise of this moment will be met.
Do our current leaders and governments have the will, understanding and courage to make foundational, transformative change to address systemic racism, including through new laws, policies and practices?
Based on experiences I have had during my time in government and as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General from 2015 until early 2019, on these fundamental issues of equality and inclusion, my answer would be “no.” I hope the current government is finally ready to do what they previously would not.
Time and again my experience was symbolic inaction and ineffective baby steps were privileged over transformative efforts to address Canada’s colonial legacy, systemic racism and the challenges with our criminal justice system. Too often, political expediency triumphed over bold and necessary action.
And sharing firsthand experience around the many tables at which I sat – as often the only Indigenous woman present – was commonly met with kindly, and sometimes even hostile, paternalistic dismissal. My lived experience as an Indigenous woman was, apparently, the wrong experience for knowing the reality of systemic racism and, more importantly, for how it needed to be addressed. I was discounted. Even as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, for far too many in government, it often seemed that on these issues in their eyes and understanding, I was an Indigenous woman first.
When I chose to enter federal politics in 2015, among the many issues I wanted to address, two were always closest to my mind and heart: bold criminal justice reform, including repealing the vast majority of mandatory minimum penalties (MMPs) and bolstering restorative justice measures; and establishing a framework in new legislation and policies to recognize and implement Indigenous rights, including phasing out the Indian Act. I believed these were also among the core priorities of the government and many of my colleagues. These priorities were in the 2015 Liberal Party platform and in mandate letters to ministers, including reference to “the most important relationship to this government” being with Indigenous peoples. Indeed, I know many within government see these as fundamentally urgent changes that need to be made.
Of course, these priorities of justice reform and reconciliation are intertwined. The relationship of Indigenous people to our justice system, including policing, is one of the starkest examples of systemic racism, and how the legacy of colonialism remains with us. Indigenous people are far more likely to be arrested, charged and jailed, and far more likely to suffer forms of violence, including murder. Similarly, Black and racialized Canadians of all backgrounds face disproportionate harm through their contact with the justice system. What is needed is comprehensively addressing the harmful reality of overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, while also changing laws in ways that recognize and empower Indigenous governments and Nations and help create the space for them to rebuild their social systems, economies and governing institutions.
For this reason, from my first day as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, I aggressively advocated, along with my colleagues, for a range of bold measures, including repealing MMPs, large investments in expanding forms of restorative justice, and addressing a broad range of socioeconomic gaps that deprive Indigenous peoples of a level playing field. On MMPs specifically, the evidence is clear: they perpetuate injustice, impose disproportionate burdens on vulnerable populations, overwhelm our prison system so it cannot fully do its work, and in important ways have been shown to be inconsistent with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also fuel the gap and mistrust between the justice system, law enforcement, and racialized populations in ways that we see playing out in the current moment.
From day one, I, and others, also pushed the government to develop and adopt a Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework, through passing new legislation that would embrace the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law while at the same time recognize rights, support Indigenous self-government, create pathways out of the Indian Act, and help Indigenous peoples rebuild their Nations and governments.
In those early years in government, I believed that we would take bold steps forward on these issues. We did not. Instead, patience was preached. The excuses were always the same. There are other priorities that had to be dealt with first. The political moment was not right. Urgency to see these major reforms was seen as naïve. Or, when it was deemed too late, we were “out of runway.”
But who should be patient in the face of injustice? Why is it those suffering injustice are always asked to keep waiting?
I believed awareness of events surrounding the tragic deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine in early 2018 would be a tipping point. Canadians marched in the streets for criminal justice reform. How often had that happened in Canadian history? At around the same time, on Feb. 14, 2018, the Prime Minister promised to develop a Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework in a historic address in Parliament. Was change finally here? Or would an amnesia about the reality of racism set in again, and, as in the past, real recommendations for change – that have been made in many reports time and again – simply gather dust on a shelf?
That was also an intensely personal time for me. I had known too many young people like Colten and Tina – or like Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore, two of the six Indigenous men and women killed in recent months. I grew up surrounded by them. They were my neighbours, schoolmates and cousins. Absent good fortune and some forms of “privilege,” I, and my sister, Kory, could have easily been them. I have many loved ones who were not so fortunate.
In response, even though I was told by some that the “centre” did not want to hear it, I, along with others, again implored and pushed for bold criminal justice reform, including repealing MMPs, and true reconciliation in every venue I could. I held hope that my colleagues could see that there are children across Canada growing up with a far greater likelihood they will be a Colten and Tina, rather than a Jody or Kory, and that real change would now come. I, and others, tried to ward off another passage into racial amnesia or indifference.
Yet again, nothing. Symbolic inaction, and at best incremental shifts, would carry the day. This was heartbreaking. Political expediency had triumphed over the work of creating a more just society.
So two years later, here we are again – but in many ways on an even larger and more intense scale. No doubt, the tipping point for the Canadian people has been met. Urgent change is needed – and Canadians know it.
But for governments and leaders the verdict remains out. The Prime Minister choosing to “take a knee” and “listen” on June 5 is a sign of cynical practices we should condemn and reject. It is, once again, merely symbolic inaction. So, too, is silence rather than condemning the racist behaviours of the President of the United States. We must always remember that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Let me be clear: Kneeling and strategic silence are useful actions citizens can take to assert their view that change is needed. They are not sufficient responses for leaders who hold in their hands the tools for effecting needed legislative and policy changes.
Real, transformative action is what is required. This can begin with changing the law to get rid of the vast majority of MMPs and reinstating necessary judicial discretion in sentencing. We can do this – and much more – now. It also includes fulfilling the promises of the Prime Minister of Feb. 14, 2018, to recognize and implement Indigenous rights through legislation so that Indigenous peoples can build stronger communities and governments, offer better care for their citizens and address social dysfunction.
Two years ago, I asked inside government, invoking the words of president John F. Kennedy, “If not now, when?” and “If not us, who?” The answer was not now, and not us.
Well, Canadians have spoken. It is up to the Prime Minister and his government to answer the second question and show whether they are up to the task of real change or will they just take a knee.
Make your voices even louder. Say that you expect our government to reflect the will, vision, and courage that thousands have shown across this country. We can do this. We can make the changes that generations of Canadians have fought and sacrificed to see happen. By taking action, we can honour George, Colton, Tina, Chantel, Rodney and all the other lives lost. We can continue to make Canada even better, more equal and more just.
If the government does what is right and what is needed – on increased justice reform, including MMPs and restorative justice, and true recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights – I will be the first one to applaud and offer my support.
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