When Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould signed on speak at "Being the Change: Women, Policy and Making a Difference" at Simon Fraser University, it was a few weeks before the federal election and she hadn't yet been elected to office.
Today, Wilson-Raybould is one of the most prominent names in the Trudeau government.
“So, you got a bonus. You got a Justice Minister!” presenter Gloria Macarenko joked at the sold-out event in downtown Vancouver.
Wilson-Raybould admitted feeling nervous before taking the stage at the packed Djavad Mowafaghian room. Yet, that uneasiness wasn’t evident throughout her 40-minute-long speech were history lessons were combined with food for thought, and the occasional joke.
Wilson-Raybould reflected on the significance of being Canada's first Justice Minister of Indigenous descent, in a country where Indigenous Canadians couldn't vote until 1960.
“Not long ago, I was part of a group that wasn’t able to vote, let alone run for an office,” she said. “Now, I’m the principal lawyer advising the government. It takes a moment to let that sink in.”
But the symbolism doesn’t end there. Wilson-Raybould explained that her traditional Kwak’wala name, Puglaas, means “a woman born to noble people.” That woman’s duty is to lead the chiefs to the big house or, in other words, to make sure they walk through the right path, she said.
Wilson-Raybould explained to audiences what she felt were her key priorities in the federal government.
Gloria Macarenko and Jody Wilson-Raybould. Photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.
Jody Wilson-Raybould said her family raised her to know she had to give back to the community by advancing Aboriginal title and rights. The way to do that, she said, is by rectifying the decision of the Fathers of Confederation of excluding Indigenous peoples and standing up for Section 35 of the Constitution.
“What keeps me up at night? Ensuring that we get the national balance right, that everyone is successful if they work hard… regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation,” she said. “Because if there are people who are marginalized, people who are forbidden from reaching their potential, then we all suffer.”
The inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is also key to achieve reconciliation, she said. Since men have also been victims in this situation, the Justice Minister emphasized how important it is for all Canadians to take part in the process.
Wilson-Raybould also highlighted the importance of helping those in need beyond Canada’s shores, in particular those who live in conflict zones. “What defines Canada is not a fear of ‘us versus them,’ but the diversity that comprises the ‘us’,” she said.
From a young age, the Justice Minister learned about balance, she said. “Everyone has a role that’s equally important,” she explained. She is convinced that a combination of Indigenous law and traditions, federal law and provincial law is what will ensure a more balanced justice system that has less legal gaps and that allows for better governance.
“First Nations can only achieve reconciliation and progress by working together with the federal and the provincial governments,” she said, after explaining that communities that have gone beyond the Indian Act are doing better socially and economically.
“Because it’s 2015”
Despite the fact that she’s part of a Cabinet with an equal number of men and women, Wilson-Raybould said there's still much work to be done for gender equality, reminding audiences that women comprise only 25 per cent of Chiefs and 26 per cent of MPs.
She wants to see more women in key positions, and is convinced that moving beyond the first-past-the-post electoral system will help achieve such a goal.
“Women in Cabinet have the abilities and qualifications needed for the job. They weren’t selected just to gain parity. This is something we should strive to gain in all levels of government,” she said.
The Justice Minister thinks the country is moving in the right direction, when it comes to diversity. She stated that more work is needed “so we end up not being conscious about it anymore.”