Skip to main content

In law, in Indigenous politics and as a cabinet minister, she has embodied a traditional role: One Who Corrects the Chiefs’ Path. And while the SNC-Lavalin affair may have silenced her for now, her days of confrontation are not done

Illustration by Agata Nowicka

In her tradition, the chiefs are always men, but it is a woman who grooms them for leadership. The woman is known as a Hiligaxste, which means One Who Corrects the Chiefs’ Path.

“I am Hiligaxste myself,” Jody Wilson-Raybould said once, early on in her tenure as federal justice minister and attorney-general, “and in many ways, this role has carried into all aspects of my life, including the role I currently serve in.”

For Canada’s first Indigenous federal justice minister and attorney-general, correcting the paths of the powerful was much more than a ceremonial title; it seems to have been her destiny.

An attorney-general’s role is to be a path-corrector, the wisdom behind the throne, advising the whole of government on what it can and cannot legally do.

And that role has propelled her to centre stage in one of the most dramatic moments of Canadian political history: A controversy that erupted after The Globe and Mail reported the Prime Minister’s Office pressed her to order an out-of court settlement in charges against Montreal engineering-construction giant SNC-Lavalin. She declined and was later demoted to Veterans Affairs.

In the unfolding saga, the two main combatants are a Prime Minister who has said Canada’s most important relationship, and his own, is with Indigenous peoples; and a barrier-breaking Indigenous woman who exemplified the diversity and equality the government said it stood for – until their relationship exploded in recrimination, nasty whispers and her resignation from cabinet.

For the moment, she has been silenced by solicitor-client privilege. Even to her mother, Sandy Wilson, she has uttered few words.

“I’m okay Mum” – this was all she would say in a text on the day she resigned.

But now, in a step without precedent in recent memory for someone departing from cabinet, she has retained former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to help her determine what she can and cannot say.

The day is coming when the One Who Corrects the Chiefs’ Path will be heard.

The future justice minister and her sister, Kory, through the years. At left, they sit on the lap of their mother, Sandy; at right, they stand with their father, Bill.Courtesy of Kory Wilson

She was five when her father’s mother, Ethel Pearson, gave her a traditional name, Puglaas, meaning woman of noble birth. Today, it’s her Twitter handle. It’s also how she signed her resignation letter to the Prime Minister, which those who know her take as a sign she’s tapping into the strength of her family and community at a difficult hour.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould was born into a prominent family of the We Wai Kai Nation, on Quadra Island, to the east of Vancouver Island, about 200 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. The nation is small, today numbering 1,200 people, half on reserve and half off.

Her forebears were activists, teachers and politicians. They stood up for what they believed in. Ms. Pearson, her grandmother, also a Hiligaxste, once spent the night in jail after chaining herself to the gates of the Comox air force base to protest against a shipment of missiles. She brought her son, Bill Wilson, then a little boy, along. A police officer drove him home.

And Bill grew up to do the same for young Jody and her older sister, Kory, when they were small children, bringing them to debates about treaty rights and the Indian Act, while they played under the table. In 1983, as vice-president of the Native Council of Canada, he would be at the table with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the premiers discussing the protection of Indigenous rights in a newly patriated Constitution. (They sparred together in a memorable exchange in which he told the PM his daughters wanted to be prime minister, and the PM replied that he would tell them when he was ready to be replaced.)

Her mother, a teacher, stood up for principle when she learned her daughters had been singled out to have their teeth checked by a health-care worker at their school because of their Indigenous background. She marched down to the principal’s office. It never happened again.

The family was accomplished in politics and in law. Ms. Pearson helped start the B.C. Native Courtworkers Association, and was a leader in the hard-won fight for Bill C-31, legislation that restored Indian status to Indigenous women who had lost it when they married non-Indigenous men. It was an injustice Ms. Pearson had suffered herself when, after her first husband died, she married a white man. (That law played out the opposite way for her family, too: Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s mother, non-Indigenous, gained status after marrying her father.)

Her father was a trailblazer, too: He was the second Indigenous person to graduate from the University of British Columbia’s law school. The first was his cousin, Alfred Scow, who also became the first Indigenous judge appointed to the B.C. Provincial Court.

At times, money was tight. Her parents’ marriage collapsed not long after she was born, and her father gives Sandy Wilson full credit for raising the girls mostly on her own. They lived for a time in Port Hardy, B.C., then Calgary, before returning to Comox on Vancouver Island. Ms. Wilson worked as a substitute teacher, and then, when teaching jobs were scarce, as a hospital admitting clerk. In high school, the girls recall their mom sleeping on the living room couch so they could have their own bedrooms.

But Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s childhood was insulated from many of the problems facing Indigenous peoples in Canada, she told The Globe in a 2015 interview. Cape Mudge was protective and tight-knit. She had relatives who were sent to residential schools, but her family resisted; her grandfather, an affluent businessman, refused to let his son Bill go.

She was headstrong, and could be unruly.

“If Kory was under an apple tree reading a book,” her father recalled in an interview this week, “Jody would be climbing the tree to drop apples on her.”

Her stubborn streak, and stamina for battle, revealed itself early in her life. One night, at a Sunday dinner, she refused to eat the special dish prepared; she was told to sit at the table until she did so; and she was still there, family lore has it, the next morning, the plate pushed aside, her head on the table, asleep.

In an interview three years ago, she acknowledged her rebellious streak. “My sister was the smarter one. I was the jump-off-the-roof sort of kid.”

She was raised to be comfortable as a leader, instructed by her paternal grandmother in what her traditional role demanded of her. Being a Hiligaxste requires dancing one of the most important roles at the potlach ceremony – to tame the wild spirit Hamat’sa. When her father was named chief and initiated as a Hamat’sa at a potlatch in Comox, the future attorney-general performed this dance, community members said. Her role as Hiligaxste, family friend Lorna Quatell says, means a lifelong responsibility to “uphold herself in a way that honours our ancestors.”

She was in law school at UBC when she learned her maternal grandmother was dying, and returned home to Vancouver Island. “The nurse made a bed for her in the room, and she stayed there day and night,” her mother recalls. Once again, she showed that her stamina and commitment run deep. Finally, her mother pressed her to return to school. Her grandmother died in her sleep soon after.

The deep attachment to her family and community never left her. “We were brought up to believe in ourselves,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said, “and to know where we came from.”

Life as a Vancouver prosecutor helped prepare Ms. Wilson-Raybould for the arenas of Indigenous, and then federal, politics.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

It was in law, as a Crown attorney in Vancouver, that she saw firsthand what her childhood had protected her from – the ravages of residential schools, poverty and addiction on the Indigenous Canadians now revolving through the court system in disproportionate numbers. For four years, after graduating alongside her sister from UBC law school in 1999, she handled guilty pleas, bail hearings and judge-only trials, enjoying the rapid-fire nature of courtroom exchanges, the challenge of making the winning argument before a judge.

The cut-and-thrust of the courtroom was good training for the bruising world of Indigenous politics, with its power struggles and the daunting challenge of steering Indigenous issues onto provincial and federal government agendas.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould first stepped into that world as an elected commissioner of the First Nations Summit, a B.C. group focused on treaty negotiations.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said he was so impressed by Ms. Wilson-Raybould that he ended up helping her win her first election as regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations in 2009 – even though he was running for the position himself. “To me, it was obvious that she was the most qualified candidate,” he said in an interview.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould became one of the few women at the decision-making table. This came with challenges; she got used to having her ideas be ignored, then picked up by a male chief and suddenly being deemed worthy of attention.

“For me, as long as it gets talked about, all the better,” she told The Globe in a 2016 interview. “But in my experience, some voices are listened to more than others.”

She had no trouble speaking truth to Indigenous power. David Jimmie met Ms. Wilson-Raybould in 2009, when he was first elected chief of Squiala First Nation and she the regional chief. Mr. Jimmie remembered other chiefs attacking her in a way he felt seemed out of line.

“She was challenged openly on the floor about an issue and it had become fairly heated,” he said. “But she was able to stay calm, hold her position, articulate it very well and not be bullied in any way whatsoever.”

The path she wanted to correct was ultimately that of the country. She became known for thorough preparation and a disciplined, problem-solving approach, as shown by a mammoth, 900-page 2014 report, called Governance toolkit: a guide to Nation Building, which she wrote with her husband, Tim Raybould, a PhD from Cambridge University in England who works as a consultant on self-government.

She and a small team of staffers began working on it during her first term – travelling and consulting with B.C.’s 203 First Nations, soliciting expert advice – and then revised it again in her second.

“She saw how Canada always came to the table with this giant binder of precedent,” says Alyssa Melnyk, a senior policy adviser who worked on the project, “and that didn’t really exist for First Nations.”

The document includes more than 30 chapters on everything from water to taxation, with examples for First Nations, as well as templates to help communities put them into practice. The team put in long hours racing to complete drafts and edit the new version – always with Ms. Wilson-Raybould at their side. “She sets the bar high,” Ms. Melynk said, “and you have to keep up.”

Her big moment on the national stage came at the 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering, when she stepped to the podium, and with then-prime minister Stephen Harper sitting in the first row, criticized Ottawa for its “neo-colonialism,” while emphasizing the importance of a government being accountable to its citizens.

Back home, it became known as her “with all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister” speech.

“Too many of our people don’t trust their own governments, and, quite frankly,” she said, addressing Mr. Harper, “they don’t trust yours either.”

Jan. 11, 2013: Indigenous chiefs and supporters march to Parliament Hill during Idle No More protests in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Persisting despite what she saw as Ottawa’s indifference, she returned in 2013 during the Idle No More social-justice campaign. In a meeting between the chiefs and Mr. Harper on Parliament Hill, she presented her guide for self-government.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Harper admitted the Indian Act needed to change, but that there was no clear way to proceed, she later recalled. Yet, she had just presented him a diligently researched solution.

“For me, that created an incredible level of frustration,” she said.

When Ms. Wilson-Raybould announced plans to seek federal office, few who knew her were surprised. The leap into federal politics was a natural progression, says her sister, Kory Wilson. Ms. Wilson-Raybould spoke with family about it and, while their father didn’t explicitly point her toward Ottawa, it was always understood that there were larger aspirations in mind.

“If you want to change the country, this is the pinnacle of changing the country,” Ms. Wilson said.

Feb. 12, 2019: Pictures of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hang side by side at her closed constituency office in Vancouver.BEN NELMS

In Canada, the justice minister is also the attorney-general. One role calls for a team player, the other for a strong individual. Being justice minister is about the long slog of policy development. Talking regularly to the Prime Minister’s Office is part of that process, former federal justice minister Anne McLellan said in an interview. “Otherwise, you’re half-blind.” The PMO gives necessary political and substantive feedback.

To be an attorney-general, however, is to stand apart. “An attorney-general in some ways is lecturing the cabinet – a lot – about the rule of law,” John Whyte, a former deputy attorney-general in Saskatchewan, said in an interview. “They need to be able to do that without being screamed at or punished.”

And their independence is protected by the Constitution – as interpreted by the Supreme Court – in a sign of their important role as a guardian of the rule of law.

Why does this role exist? “Because otherwise there’s Trump,” Mr. Whyte said. “The tendency of governments to abridge the rule of law is pandemic.”

April 13, 2017: Ms. Wilson-Raybould sits between Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and then health minister Jane Philpott to announce major changes on cannabis legalization.Adrian Wyld/The Associated Press

As justice minister, Ms. Wilson-Raybould carried the ball for the government on major files: drafting a law to permit assisted dying; conducting a review of a decade of Conservative sentencing changes in criminal law; and, with two other ministers, working on the government’s signature file – cannabis legalization.

As attorney-general, she stood by the independence of the director of public prosecutions, refusing to order the director to reach a deferred prosecution deal with SNC-Lavalin, which faces criminal charges of bribery and fraud in connection with construction work in Libya.

Mr. Trudeau and senior government officials have acknowledged they spoke to her about the matter.

This is where the line blurs between the role of attorney-general and justice minister. The attorney-general is a cabinet member, not one who stands truly apart. (In Britain, the attorney-general sits outside of cabinet; the home secretary is the justice minister.) Some conversation with the attorney-general in the Canadian system is legitimate, Mr. Whyte says.

“The legitimacy of the conversation pretty much stops once you get past ‘explain to me,’ or ‘I’m going to tell you what I think, but I’m not telling you what to do.’ That at least happened to me. It’s tricky, right, because people try to stay on the right side of their bosses.”

Jan. 14, 2019: Ms. Wilson-Raybould poses for a picture with Mr. Trudeau and Governor-General Julie Payette after her swearing-in as Veterans Affairs minister.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

In January, after she was demoted to Veterans Affairs, there were whispers from PMO officials that she was hard to work with, that she had been through four chiefs of staff. On Friday, Mr. Trudeau apologized for those remarks and others from his officials, describing them as sexist.

Her first two chiefs of staff came directly from the PMO. They were the PMO’s eyes in her office. (Other ministers also had chiefs of staff supplied by the PMO.) The first, Kirsten Mercer, lasted mere weeks. Next came Cyrus Reporter, working in the PMO while doing part-time duty for Ms. Wilson-Raybould. Third was Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s former campaign manager, Lea Nicholas-MacKenzie, a member of the Maliseet First Nation in New Brunswick, who left after two years. And after that, Jessica Prince, an Oxford-educated, Bay Street lawyer who would move on with Ms. Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs.

Both Ms. Prince and Ms. Nicholas-MacKenzie attended her swearing-in as veterans affairs minister in January, a show of loyalty.

“She was wonderful to work for,” says Katie Black, a former clerk to chief justice Beverley McLachlin who served as judicial-affairs adviser to Ms. Wilson-Raybould. “I never worked with someone who was so careful in her decision-making. … What made minister Wilson-Raybould unique was that she wouldn’t make up her mind until everyone within the circle of the decision-making process had spoken, no matter how junior.”

Her record as justice minister is mixed, but contains major achievements. On the biggest justice tasks assigned her by the Prime Minister, she struck a cautious note. On assisted dying, for instance, the Supreme Court had ruled that anyone suffering grievous, unending pain, physical or psychological, had a right to medical assistance in ending their lives. But the new law drafted and defended by Ms. Wilson-Raybould required foreseeability of death. Almost immediately, lawyers filed constitutional challenges.

On sentencing laws, she went out on a limb. The former Conservative government had created 60 new mandatory minimum penalties, and put strict limits on the use of conditional sentencing – that is, house arrest as an alternative to jail. Each was seen as a major contributor to rising rates of Indigenous incarceration. She told The Globe as far back as November, 2016, that making changes to the minimums was a fait accompli. But cabinet wasn’t onside, and it never happened.

Her response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in a case called Jordan in 2016, which set time limits for criminal proceedings, showed greater savvy. First, she elicited provincial support in a series of ministerial meetings, and then drafted groundbreaking changes such as eliminating most preliminary inquiries, knowing that the provinces had her back.

On the urgent matter of filling judicial vacancies, she moved slowly. It was more than a year before she hired a judicial affairs adviser to do the all-important vetting of candidates for the federal bench. (The non-partisan screening committees that give a thumbs up or down are merely a first step.)

Meanwhile, the courts were crying out for help – Chief Justice Neil Wittmann of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench told The Globe in April, 2016, a year and a half into the government’s mandate, that his court was “desperate,” adding “you can’t change locomotives and stop the train.”

Ultimately, Ms. Wilson-Raybould changed the composition of the screening committees, cleared everyone out from the existing committees, and brought in new policies emphasizing diversity; the government would publicly track the numbers of Indigenous, visible, ethnic and sexual minorities and disabled people who apply and are appointed. The number of women applying skyrocketed from 30 per cent to over 50 per cent.

The legal community respected her, and found her demotion a stunning surprise.

“It was out of the blue, for me,” Ray Adlington, president of the Canadian Bar Association, said in an interview. “Generally, the legal community was happy with the job she was doing. You’re dealing with a very competent individual.”

Nearly overlooked, in all the furor over the directive she didn’t issue, is one she did – just days before her demotion. It’s called the Attorney-General of Canada’s Directive on Civil Litigation Involving Indigenous Peoples, and it’s meant to keep matters out of court, and respect and recognize Indigenous rights.

“We were looking forward to it making a real difference,” says Michael Jackson, a lawyer for the Haida Nation in B.C., and a professor at the Allard School of Law who taught both Ms. Wilson-Raybould and her father. “But it can only make a real difference if the Minister who issued it is there to make sure it is implemented.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould's office in Vancouver sits closed on the day of her resignation from cabinet.BEN NELMS

As a Hiligaxste, her role involves a kind of reconciliation. She is to heal and guide Hamat’sa, a chosen man who had been cast out into the wilderness on a spiritual quest. In decades past, this exile would have lasted months on end, culminating with a potlatch at which the Hiligaxste and Hamat’sa do a traditional dance to reintegrate the Hamat’sa into society.

“The Hiligaxste would lead the Hamat’sa back to balance and harmony and to belonging again – metaphorically speaking, from abnormality to normalcy, from insanity to sanity,” says Chief Robert Joseph.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould left Ottawa with her husband, Tim, on Thursday for Cape Mudge, a 65-house village where they maintain a home. Her mom, who lives there now, was waiting for the call from the ferry. The neighbours had already shovelled the driveway, and cleared a path to the woodpile of her home in the middle of the village. There was talk of a snowball fight, Sandy Wilson said, and plans for some fun and relaxation.

“We are going to jar fish even in the snow this weekend." Tradition, family and sockeye salmon – and a strength-gathering pause – a world away from whatever comes next in Ottawa.

With reports from Wendy Stueck and Andrea Woo in Vancouver and Kathryn Blaze Baum in Toronto

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the authors of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles