Jody Wilson-Raybould most recently served as the independent member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville. Her latest book, “Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power, from which this essay is adapted, was published today.
We do not know exactly when my grandmother was born, but we guess it was around 1910. The only records of her birth were destroyed because of fires over the years. She was the oldest of seven kids. At the age of 9, she was sent to residential school with her younger sister, Alice, who was 8. At the time in our territory, it was typical for Indian agents to just show up in a boat and take the kids away. Her father wanted to avoid that, so he brought his children to Alert Bay himself, where he bought them some clothes and then dropped them off at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School; they were going to be forced to go one way or another. In 1990, my granny was recorded by my older sister Kory Wilson telling stories of many aspects of her life, including her first day in residential school. Of course, many generations of Indigenous peoples from across the country have stories of their experiences in these schools, many of which were heard by Canadians through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. My granny passed away before the commission did its work, and I am grateful to have her recollections recorded.
When I listen to my granny I hear some of the sorrow and pain in her voice, but what comes through far more is the indomitable fortitude of this woman. The unrelenting strength. She had that strength as a child. In terms of being at residential school, she said, “Something told me then that you were put here to learn how to talk English so you could talk for your people.” Another story she tells about the school was when they were threatening to send her to “reform school” in Vancouver unless she ratted on what some of the other kids were up to. My granny had never been to Vancouver, so she told them to go ahead and send her. Instead, they decided to strap her, which my grandmother said was almost a daily occurrence. On recounting that occasion, she said, “They said the first time we cried they would stop but I was too stubborn, I didn’t care if they beat me till I was dead. I just bit my teeth together so I would not cry. They just gave up strapping me, but I could feel the blood running down my legs. That is what we learned from the Christian.” My grandmother was eventually kicked out of the residential school. A blessing.
The inside story of the rise and fall of the recognition and implementation of an Indigenous rights framework encapsulates all of these tensions. In 2017, the government formed, and I chaired, a Working Group of Ministers to advance a framework for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights. After the working group endorsed the approach in the summer of 2017, I was intent on getting it moving as soon as possible. With staff and the Justice Department, I prepared a lengthy discussion paper that could be used publicly for engagement about the framework. The discussion paper gave the history and context of the struggle for recognition of Indigenous rights, detailed the kinds of solutions that had been brought forward over generations through the work of Indigenous peoples, and laid out preliminary ideas about the types of legislative and policy work that could be co-developed through the process and form part of the framework. The draft of the discussion paper got caught in an endless game of tag between my office, the Prime Minister’s Office and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Ultimately, even though the PMO committed to its release, they simply blocked it. To this day it has not been released.
I could also see the government lining up to do what it so often does – focus on the “moment” rather than the “substance.” The moment would be a speech, ultimately given by the Prime Minister, announcing a recognition and implementation of an Indigenous rights framework in the House of Commons. This ended up being planned for Feb. 14, 2018. In the lead-up to the speech, there were what seemed like endless efforts between the PMO, my office and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett’s office to develop comprehensive materials addressing hard issues and questions that would be asked about the framework and what it meant. For weeks on end these went back and forth in cycles. All they ultimately revealed was that the government did not have a clear understanding of what the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights meant, and had no intention of following through. All of these materials were abandoned as there was no agreement on what could or would be said. There was just a speech.
Feb. 14, 2018, and what happened in the aftermath offers a perfect reflection of so many things that were wrong with this government and how I was caught up in it all: how the government functions and where it puts its priorities; where control in the government really lies; the fraying of relationships I had with some of my colleagues; and my growing realization that it was becoming unlikely that my time in this government would or could last as long as I had once thought it would.
In the months ahead of the speech there had been also a fair amount of discussion about what engagement on a framework would occur, who would lead it and how it would unfold, but it all remained murky. There was a general idea that Carolyn would lead the engagement with Indigenous peoples, and that I would meet with experts and certain groups. I would also give a number of speeches across the country that would provide details of the framework. The use of the discussion paper was also murky, but I was still being told it would be released around the time initial engagement got under way in early March. I was also hearing, however, that CIRNA was preparing other materials that would be used.
A final version of the Prime Minister’s speech was shown to me on the morning of the 14th. Some of it was good, but some of the language was off-key from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective. I was frustrated to be seeing it at the last minute, but I went ahead and suggested a number of edits and forwarded them to the PMO. They accepted a few. Midday, Carolyn popped into my office with a member of her staff. A number of my staff were also milling about. We got into a conversation about the speech, the framework and what we should be doing. It became very heated, no doubt a release of tensions that had been building up. The staff were clearly feeling uncomfortable, and Carolyn and I ended up speaking alone. It was not good.
My sense of inner conflict was immense and intensifying. Based on all that had transpired up to this point, I knew there was not a clear understanding, focus or plan for this work to unfold. At the same time, there was a part of me that always wanted to give the benefit of the doubt. My frustration and disappointment was complete. This government – the government I was a part of – would go down the same path as previous ones when it came to delivering on what was needed to address the legacy of colonialism. But I also so much wanted to believe that the right thing could still be done, and I had to be relentless in trying to push my colleagues to that place.
This inner conflict played itself out as I told some of my staff that I was thinking of not going down to the House for the Prime Minister’s speech. Some of them started to panic; their sense was that if I did not attend, the wrath of the PMO would be over the top. I ended up with some downtime before the speech, which was to be given after Question Period that afternoon. I called my husband, Tim Raybould, and sat in my office with a few trusted advisers coming in and out, including Roshan Danesh.
I often teased Roshan that he was too much the skeptic and too cynical about government and its willingness to effect change on Indigenous issues. While that was not totally fair, this day was different; it featured something of a role reversal. As we had a meandering chat about how we had arrived at this place and what the journey had been (which included some emotions), he gently started encouraging me to go down for the speech. He knew all of my concerns and frustrations, and how upset I was. But as we talked, I remembered all the work and leadership – from so many people – that it had taken to even reach this moment, a moment where governments would start to talk properly about Indigenous rights. We had the 10 principles. At the very least, a speech about rights recognition, delivered by the Prime Minister, would go on the public record and offer a retelling of some of our history in useful ways. As that discourse shifts, opportunities for change will increase. And there was still my hope against hope that this government would act. We went downstairs for the speech together.
I was moved by the Prime Minister’s remarks. The speech was historic. The Prime Minister delivered it well and the words were important ones. Afterward, the PM gave me his marked-up copy of the speech with a handwritten note on the front page that read, “Thank you Jody, for leading us all on this journey!” Signed and dated.
That was to be the last of such moments.
Excerpt from ‘Indian’ in the Cabinet by Jody Wilson-Raybould. Published in the English language in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2021 by Jody Wilson-Raybould. All rights reserved.
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