In recent weeks, an archival clip from a 1983 constitutional conference on indigenous rights has circulated widely in Canada. The footage shows the Kwakwaka’wakw lawyer Bill Wilson sitting across from the then prime minister, Pierre Trudeau – the father of the country’s current leader.
Wilson tells Trudeau that both of his daughters want to become lawyers – and even prime minister. The audience – and Trudeau – laugh.
Thirty-six years later, one of those daughters has become the central figure in a scandal which continues to inflict political damage on Justin Trudeau and his government.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was the country’s first indigenous attorney general and minister of justice, is scheduled to testify on Wednesday in front of parliament’s justice committee, speaking publicly for the first time on allegations that the prime minister’s closest aides improperly pressured her to abandon fraud and bribery prosecutions for a large Canadian engineering firm.
Many believe that her refusal to acquiesce cost her a job.
Those who know Wilson-Raybould, a lawyer from British Columbia, see a person who doesn’t shy away from her principles.
She signed her resignation letter from the cabinet with the name Puglaas, which means “woman born to noble people” in the Kwak’wala language. The name given her by her grandmother in a potlatch naming ceremony and brings with it a deep sense of dignity and obligation.
Wilson-Raybould’s sister, Kory Wilson, told the Guardian the two were brought up with a strong sense of pride in their heritage.
“As kids growing up in our family, we were raised to know that you have a responsibility to make a difference and use whatever skills and abilities you have to help others,” she said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs described Wilson-Raybould as a “woman of integrity and principle” for the work she did for indigenous communities as an elected region chief.
When Wilson-Raybould was given two of the highest positions in the country –minister of justice and attorney general – the feeling was “absolutely incredible” for the family, said Kory Wilson.
“That was the first time that an indigenous voice would be represented at that highest level. Does that mean that things will happen and change overnight? No, of course not. But the potential was there and the hope was there.”Advertisement
Trudeau’s decision to bring a well-respected indigenous lawyer into Ottawa’s inner circle was seen as proof that his government was attempting to reset its relationship with indigenous peoples – and also bring credibility to his administration.
A photo of Wilson-Raybould embracing Trudeau in the House of Commons quickly became emblematic of the perceived shift in tone towards indigenous peoples.
But the honeymoon period between Canada’s indigenous people and the Trudeau government slowly shifted to a more confrontational relationship; despite the fanfare around his government’s plan to overhaul the country’s relationship with indigenous peoples, the legislation has been abandoned and is unlikely to become law.
Meanwhile, although Wilson-Raybould won plaudits for her commitment to reconciliation efforts, she has also come under criticism for a handful of legal decisions which critics believe will have problematic implications in years to come.
Civil rights groups say the drunk driving and cannabis laws introduced by her office disproportionately target ethnic minorities.
Still, her demotion from the post came as a surprise to many.
“When Jody was kicked in the teeth by the prime minister, and shuffled down to veterans affairs, as important as it is, that was a clear slap in the face for all Indians across the country,” her father told the CBC, calling his daughter “a woman of integrity”.
In February, the Globe and Mail reported she had been pressured by the prime minister’s closest advisers to avert the prosecution of the engineering giant SNC Lavalin for bribery and fraud.
The prime minister publicly denied that was the case and suggested Wilson-Raybould’s continued presence in cabinet indicated the two had an amicable relationship. Hours later, Wilson-Raybould resigned.
In the weeks that followed, Wilson-Raybould became the target of a smear campaign: administration staff and party loyalists told the Canadian Press she was “difficult” to work with, self-centred and prone to anger. She was also featured in editorial cartoons that were widely panned as racist and sexist – which the prime minister subsequently condemned.
Throughout the affair, she has remained silent and resisted becoming a foil for opposition parties seeking to capitalize on the feud with the prime minister.
That will change on Wednesday afternoon, when she is slated to deliver a 30-minute opening statement to the justice committee – three times longer than is normal.
So far, the prime minister appears determined to weather the self-inflicted storm, but those who know Wilson-Raybould believe he might have picked the wrong battle.
“There’s no doubt about it, he picked a fight with the wrong individual,” Grand Chief Phillip said. “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”