Having been a regular attendee at the Ottawa International Writers Festival for years, I was eager to participate for the first time in a session held at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South. I arrived about 6:15 pm for the 7pm session, and noted immediately that the church was already beginning to fill up quickly. By the time the event started, pretty well all 600 seats were occupied, and those in attendance didn’t hesitate to show their appreciation for our guest author by giving her a standing ovation when she entered the stage. It was an emotional event from the start.
Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared exactly the way I imagined: a true introvert, slightly uncomfortable with all the attention but still happy to be there. Wilson-Raybould was warm and gracious, and moderator Paul Wells did a superb job of setting the tone for the evening. Wells advised the audience that this particular event would not explore either the SNC-Lavalin affair or the relationship between the former attorney general and the current prime minister. Instead, the interview and ensuing discussion were to be around the perspective and path outlined by author regarding how we as a country can move forward with the long-overdue reconciliation process with Indigenous peoples. Wells’ intention was definitely heard and understood, as at no point in the evening did anyone step outside those respectful boundaries.
Wilson-Raybould’s new book, From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, is the culmination of more than a decade’s work in politics. The book is comprised of a series of speeches and papers written by Wilson-Raybould while she held several key positions of authority and leadership. Wilson-Raybould has served as British Columbia Regional Chief, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, as well as being a citizen and an advocate. Nowhere in Wilson-Raybould’s answers to the excellent questions put forth by Wells did I see a trace of arrogance or the so-called “difficult” aspects of her demeanor. She appeared thoughtful, reflective, unrehearsed and authentic.
Without a doubt, though, her answers and opinions were direct and strong. Wilson-Raybould told the audience of a 2012 meeting with Stephen Harper, where she had felt her views as British Columbia Regional Chief were totally “unheard,” was the moment when she decided to become more directly involved with politics at the national level. Wilson-Raybould already knew that Indigenous people were perfectly capable of self-government, making their own collaborative decisions, and that they were incredibly resilient in dealing with the harsh realities of daily life forced upon them by colonialism. What she had not anticipated when she enthusiastically joined the current Liberal Party, was the limited view of options seen by the team, and their hesitation in moving beyond the Indian Act.
In spite of these realities, Jody Wilson-Raybould remains hopeful. Her grandmother and other mentors instilled in her a firm belief that “if you know who you are, work hard, and stay true to your values, anything is possible.” Based upon some of the questions she was eventually asked by audience members looking for direction, she pointed to the need for transformative leadership if we are to move towards a unified and healthy Canada. Wilson-Raybould does not see this vision happening if the federal government continues to dispute any claims made by those who have been mistreated. “You don’t build relationships in court” Wilson-Raybould asserted. Instead, the hard work of reconciling, collaborating and taking appropriate time to consult is required. “Just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean we don’t do it,” she reminded her listeners. Anyone sitting in that audience Friday night knows how deeply she has lived those words!