A distinguished prosecutor and First Nations leader, Canada’s Justice Minister is something new

has never before had a justice minister like , 44, named to the position Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Her appointment will seem to some like a miracle.

She is the first indigenous person chosen to serve as federal justice minister. She’s also the first to have spent years working in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, as a Crown prosecutor. In that role, she dealt with the most violent in Canadian society, and the most vulnerable and troubled.

Canada’s new justice minister has roots with an Indian reserve on Quadra Island, and lives in Vancouver with her husband, Tim Raybould, who is Caucasian. She is Kwakwaka’wakw, the traditional inhabitants of northern Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland and local islands.

In her aboriginal communities, Wilson-Raybould is known also as Puglaas, the indigenous name given her as a child by her grandmother. In the Kwak’wala language, Puglaas means “a woman born to noble people.”

Wilson-Raybould’s mother, Sandra Wilson, was a teacher. Her father, Bill Wilson, was an outspoken First Nations leader, a firebrand who helped push aboriginal amendments into Canada’s constitution. He successfully lobbied another prime minister, back in the early 1980s. That person was Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father.

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The Wilsons expected all their children to succeed, off the reserve, and they certainly have. Jody is “the brightest Indian in the country, next to me,” Bill Wilson boasted to the Vancouver Sun, when his second-eldest daughter was starting to make a name for herself in aboriginal issues and politics.

It was 2003, and Wilson-Raybould had just been recruited to the B.C. Treaty Commission (BCTC), the independent body of elected commissioners that oversees aboriginal treaty negotiations in the province.

Miles Richardson was then chief commissioner. He’d known Wilson-Raybould and her family for years, and was impressed by her decision to work as a prosecutor after graduating from the University of British Columbia law school. She toiled for three years inside a grungy provincial courthouse on Main Street, in the Downtown Eastside, worlds removed from the comfortable practice that many other young lawyers wanted.

Richardson was struck by her intellect and passion. She seemed to have inherited the latter from her father. “But Jody has always been very much her own person,” Richardson said in an interview Wednesday. “She has a deep sense of her own values, and she has the courage to live them. I wanted the best talent I could get, so I approached Jody and told her that we needed her.”

She joined the BCTC as an advisor. A year later, Richardson left to run as a Liberal candidate in the 2004 federal election. He lost. Wilson-Raybould, meanwhile, ran successfully for elected office, as a BCTC commissioner. She served for six years, working on more than a dozen treaty negotiations with B.C. First Nations and provincial and federal governments.

In 2009, Wilson-Raybould waded deeper into electoral politics, running for the B.C. Regional Chief position with the Assembly of First Nations. She won easily, and was re-elected three years later. The federal Liberals then identified her as a potential candidate, and she agreed to run for the party in the new riding of Vancouver Granville, which includes some of the city’s most affluent neighbourhoods.

It wasn’t an obvious place for Wilson-Raybould, who didn’t live in the riding until recently. But she demolished the competition last month, winning the riding hands down.

Now she is federal justice minister, a huge leap forward. Among other things, Wilson-Raybould will push for aboriginal justice reform. She will also play a key role in the formation of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered women and girls, including its terms of reference. No easy task. But she would not have accepted her cabinet position without having Trudeau’s campaign promise reiterated and affirmed.

Any reports coming from such an inquiry will be formally presented to her, as justice minister. Wilson-Raybould will be counted on to ensure that recommendations are considered and implemented, not ignored. Again, not that simple. But this minister of justice was born and raised for the job.

About Brian Hutchinson