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'Room left to grow': Canada's first aboriginal justice minister one year in

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraces Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa in a November 4, 2015, file photo.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
October 24, 2016 - 7:00 AM

OTTAWA - There is a gripping photograph of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taken when newly elected Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould was sworn in as justice minister.

The two politicians stare into each other's eyes, smiling, both their faces lending themselves easily to projections about the promise of naming the first indigenous person — and the third woman — to head a department that has, throughout Canadian history, played a crucial role in designing legislation that has been so often harmful to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

"I know that for both the prime minister and myself, the reaction to the appointment was not so much about me, but rather a response to how far we have come as country," Wilson-Raybould wrote in a statement issued in place of making herself available for an interview for this profile.

"It was not all that long ago that a person like me could not even vote, let alone run for office or aspire to be appointed to such high office."

The look on the prime minister's face also suggests the confidence and enthusiasm Trudeau had in his choice to entrust a first-time MP, although no stranger to politics, with such an important portfolio and then give her such an ambitious mandate.

The law on physician-assisted dying, the legalization of marijuana, the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, a new Supreme Court appointments process — all this and more landed on her desk immediately.

Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister, points out that the new initiatives are on top of a broader mandate that includes everything from reducing incarceration rates among First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples to reviewing, and likely reversing, the criminal and sentencing reforms that made up the Conservatives' tough-on-crime agenda.

"It would be a comprehensive and compelling mandate (even) if it had not been for the things that have been thrust, by reasons of the government's policy and program," said Cotler.

One year later, Wilson-Raybould, 45, remains an influential and involved member of cabinet, sitting on five of its 11 committees, where much of the sometimes heated debate between ministers actually takes place.

Public Services Minister Judy Foote sees a minister who makes a quick and lasting impression on those she works with.

"She's very engaged in her file, but very engaged around the cabinet table and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience," she said.

What strikes former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan is the way Wilson-Raybould takes charge when she walks into a room.

"That's an important thing, especially for female politicians to do," said McLellan, who is chairing the task force on how best to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use.

Not everyone has been so impressed.

Her first real test as justice minister was being tasked, alongside Health Minister Jane Philpott, with stickhandling the law on doctor-assisted dying (Bill C-14), as a response to a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of the advocacy group Dying with Dignity Canada, remembered feeling optimistic when sitting down with Wilson-Raybould before the legislation came out, as she felt the minister was genuinely "grappling" with finding the right balance.

"When we saw the legislation, that was just a slap in the face," said Gokool, who has been vocal with her concerns that the law does not comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Supreme Court decision. The law restricts access to medically assisted dying to terminally ill adults who are already close to a natural death.

Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, on an island near Campbell River, B.C., and a former regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, has also been shouldering some of the disappointment indigenous peoples have been expressing over a lack of progress on the major Trudeau promise to build a nation-to-nation relationship.

She has faced particular criticism for the government's decision to issue federal fisheries permits need to continue work on the B.C. Hydro Site C dam, a megaproject she protested when she was B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

Dr. Hedy Fry, her fellow B.C. Liberal MP, said Site C must have been difficult for her to deal with, but these are the kinds of learning experiences that any newly elected politician must live through.

"Sometimes, you walk in here and you're convinced that you're going to do this and then you suddenly realize that you've got to find the balance, that you've got a whole set of people you've never talked to before who don't think it's a good thing or who think it's a good thing," Fry said.

There have been other challenges unrelated to her policy mandate, such as when the CBC reported this spring Wilson-Raybould was headlining a private Liberal party fundraiser at the Toronto office of Torys LLP, a prominent international business law firm. And staffing in her office got off to a shaky start, with her first chief of staff being shuffled out soon after taking the job.

The parts of her mandate that had many in the legal community so excited about her taking on the role are still very much a work in progress.

Barry Stuart, a retired Yukon judge who was part of a small group invited to a private meeting with Wilson-Raybould this spring to discuss Liberal plans for reform, said he left the gathering optimistic about the opportunities to come.

"It's taken a woman — and an aboriginal woman — to see that we need to make the justice system a working, problem-solving part of our society, not a problem-creating part of our society," said Stuart, a director of the Smart Justice Network of Canada.

Lorne Sossin, dean of the Osgoode Hall law school at York University, said some feel she has not yet been given enough free rein, especially since so many of her initial files are those upon which Trudeau has personally staked his ambitions.

"There's room left to grow into the role," he said.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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