Jody Wilson-Raybould – Former cabinet minister, author, lawyer & champion of change
Jody Wilson-Raybould is a proud Kwakwaka’wakw person from the west coast of British Columbia with a phenomenal career in politics and community development. Jody served as the independent Member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, Minister of Justice, Attorney General of Canada, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Associate Minister of National Defense. Jody is also a lawyer, best-selling author, and leader in British Columbia’s First Nations. She has been a champion of Indigenous and women’s rights throughout her career.
In this episode of The Honest Talk, Jen and Catherine speak with Jody about her proud identity and her inspiration, what gives her hope as we continue to struggle through the pandemic, and about her political memoir. Jody also opens up about speaking truth to power and shares how she handled criticism and hateful remarks in a time of national turmoil.
Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Jennifer Stewart: You’ve had a busy and, frankly, tumultuous few years, and two of those have been pandemic years. How are you doing?
Jody Wilson-Raybould I have been learning to live within a new reality and taking care of my elderly parents and trying to keep them safe and trying to find space to maintain some level of sanity and health. And through those two years, I’ve actually discovered my love of running again. So that’s enabled me to sit in front of Zooms as we do all day.
Catherine Clark: You have released a memoir. It provides a really clear, pre-COVID view of the day-to-day life of a government minister, and it’s an intensely busy life. But because of that, things have to fall off to the wayside, things you might otherwise want to put your energy into, like perhaps running or having a bit of time to yourself. What things are now built into your life that you couldn’t have imagined fitting in when you were serving in public office?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: When I was a Minister of the Crown, I really had every minute of every day pretty much booked, and that balance that we seek to achieve, as women particularly, seemed to fall by the wayside. I became quite unhealthy – just basically worked from morning till night. All of the work that I was doing and that others were doing is incredibly important. But I think one of the lessons that I’ve learned from becoming healthier now and running is, I wish I had done that throughout the time that I was Minister because that makes your mind clear and takes your mind off things for a certain period of time during the day. I think that’s really valuable.
Lessons learned from mother and grandmother
Jennifer Stewart: I’m always intrigued by supportive women in other successful women’s lives. What have you learned by surrounding yourself with strong, supportive women?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I think about my mother and my grandmother, the matriarch of our clan, the Eagle Clan. She raised my sister and I and my cousins to know who we are, to know our culture, to know where we come from, and to be proud of that. And she taught me to believe in myself and she taught us the values and principles of inclusion and equality, justice, and to carry those values and principles with you, whatever you do, and to ensure that you use your skills and abilities, whatever those are, to ultimately improve quality of life for our community and beyond.
For me, maintaining that and always coming back and remembering who I am and where I come from has enabled me to confront any challenge that has been put in front of me. It enabled me to see things through and be able to hold various rules and do it with my head up knowing who I am and being able to speak the truth.
Jennifer Stewart: You were thrown onto the international stage when you spoke truth to power. You did it with such conviction and it looked easy, but I can only imagine it wasn’t easy. What was your thought process when you knew that this would be a huge story, and you knew that staying true to your integrity and your conviction would not be the easy road to take?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I knew this story was going to be big, but I could never have imagined that things would have unfolded the way that they did. I have always lived by a set of values and principles and the teachings of our Big House, which is our system of government, and have always been taught to speak the truth. If you don’t speak the truth, then – we’re from an oral culture – our culture dies.
I’ve always been a very detail-orientated person. I knew my role as Minister of Justice, and in this case, as the Attorney General of Canada. I knew my responsibilities, my statutory responsibilities. And as much as I have always shied away from, believe it or not, national media attention, when it came and I was being asked questions about what I did, the decisions I made as the Attorney General, I was rooted in a knowledge of my role and my responsibilities as well as the importance of acting and speaking with integrity and truth. So maybe I reflected calm. My toes were shaking, my hands were probably shaking and sweaty, but I felt calm in the sense that I knew what I was doing was the right thing to do.
Canadians waking up to the political system
Jennifer Stewart: You’ve called Parliament toxic and ineffective. Now, I think any rational person would certainly be forgiven for deciding not to choose a career in politics, but if good people don’t stand up and run, the whole system risks failure. What do you say to women that talk to you about running? And how do we change the status quo, get more in-betweeners in politics and actually change the system? Or is that in your mind? Is it even possible to change the system?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I’m a complete cup-half-full person. I believe it is fundamentally important that women and people from all different areas and aspects and walks of life get involved in politics. People come up to me all the time on the street and airports and want advice about whether or not they should run. And my answer is always, absolutely. If you have a reason to run, you have a plan, you want something improved or changed, you have to get involved. We need a diversity of voices.
I don’t want in any way my reflections about my experience to deter people from getting involved. I am so grateful for the experience that I had. I think I have a responsibility to continue to talk about that experience. That’s the reason why I wrote the book. If we don’t, then we can’t improve our system of government. So I want everybody thinking about it to get involved in public life, whether that be running as an MP or provincially, or for your councils at home. And we need people to do so from every corner of society.
Catherine Clark: Your memoir is such a damning indictment of the system as it currently exists with the level of power that is condensed in one particular office. I don’t know that people feel that by running they can make positive change. Do you really think they can?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I think the pandemic and COVID has galvanized our thinking around how fundamentally interconnected we are as human beings, as Canadians, and I think Canadians are waking up and speaking out, are beginning more and more to need our leaders. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in Ottawa and what happens in Parliament over the next number of days and weeks and months, but we need to change our democratic institutions. Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not. But we need more members of Parliament to be independent. We need more collaboration and cooperation. And we need to reduce the level of partisanship, which we’re seeing so overtly more than ever before.
Disillusionment among Canadians with the political process and politicians: that’s the greatest threat to our democracy. I haven’t sworn off getting back involved in politics in some fashion. But yeah, it scares me that people are becoming more disillusioned. At the same time, people are seeing the ways that we can change, whether that be looking at our institutions and improving the system from within, or outside looking at democratic reform more broadly. I think that is a really important conversation that we need to have coming out of the reality that we’re contending with right now.
Jennifer Stewart: How do we move away from such an intrinsically partisan system? It’s nice to say we need to step away from partisanship, but what are some steps we can take to actually achieve that?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I’m thinking about my own experience. When I got involved in federal politics, it was much to the chagrin of many Indigenous leaders. Why would I do that? But we need people to cross over, whether it is from one area of politics to another, or individuals that have never seen themselves or been in an elected position to run. This is the reason why more women should run: because there’s not equality and there’s not the inclusion that’s necessary. Part of it is because of the overt partisanship that exists. But even since I left the House of Commons, I’ve seen MPs speaking up more and more from within political parties. And that’s a good thing. It’s not a huge trend right now. But it could be.
Sometimes we don’t recognize the challenge that we have, whether it be partisanship or another issue, until it slaps us in the face. Well, we’re getting slapped in the face right now. It seems like it’s not elected leaders that are going to lead us out of this. It’s citizens and Canadians that are going to lead us out of it by bringing forward solutions. There’s a young public servant in Ottawa who just got an injunction to stop the hoards. I mean, that’s fantastic! Taking some role in your own future: that’s what I encourage people to continue to do.
The strength of husband’s support
Catherine Clark: You seem to have a really strong relationship with your husband. What strength has he brought to you? And you mentioned, you haven’t ruled out the idea of running again. I’d really be curious to hear about that, because it cannot have been fun for him to watch you go through what you did.
Jody Wilson-Raybould: We’ve been together for almost 15 years, married for most of those, and he has been a constant supporter. We have a very similar belief system, and we are passionate about working in the same areas around governance and working with First Nations to rebuild institutions and nations. He has been a supporter. He wasn’t sure about me getting involved in federal politics in the first place, but he saw the potential and the necessity to have more Indigenous voices on the so-called ‘other side’ in the House of Commons to actually make the transformative change that we’ve worked for our entire lives.
In 2019, he was there too. And he said, “Just walk away. Just leave them. It’s not worth it.” He must have said that 100 times, but when we had the ability to sit back and think, we were like, ‘Of course it’s worth it.” He said, “You did what you did for the rule of law and upholding the independence of the district judiciary, but also to do what is right and show integrity in politics.”
I don’t know what I would do without his support. He’s incredibly proud of what I and everybody that worked with me were able to achieve over the course of the amazing six years, three years that I was a Minister of the Crown. I know that if I said that I’m going get back in, to run for this position or that, he would be the first person standing in line to knock on the doors for me.
Jennifer Stewart: That was pretty amazing to have that shoulder and then support at the end of the day. What gives you hope right now?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I get hope from people who want to get involved in their community, who are committed to public service and contributing their skills towards actually improving quality of life. And those people are everywhere. I can’t imagine a day without having somebody come up and tell me something good that they’re doing. You see it everywhere. We don’t tell the stories enough of the success and the inspiration and all the good work that people are doing, but it’s everywhere.
Jennifer Stewart: Do you have leadership ambitions?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I’m not necessarily thinking about politics or running for a leadership position right now. I never say never. I’ve always run for positions that I think can be a means to an end, in terms of moving on justice issues, moving on Indigenous reconciliation. So, if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll be there. There’s lots of amazing opportunities that people have presented to me and I’m just waiting for the right thing to appear. I think it’s coming.