British Columbia

Why Jody Wilson-Raybould's reference to her First Nation traditions in SNC-Lavalin testimony has significance

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council who recently wrote an editorial about the subject, spoke with On The Island’s Gregor Craigie about its significance.

Tribal Council president Judith Sayers explains its importance

Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet Feb. 12 after reports surfaced in the Globe and Mail that she had been asked to intervene in the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin when she was justice minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Federal Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould's testimony about feeling pressure from the prime minister and his office to keep the corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin out of the courtroom riveted the nation last week.

As a member of the We Wai Kai First Nation, Wilson-Raybould referenced her First Nations traditions as she closed out her remarks to the House of Commons justice committee.

"I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am and this is who I will always be. Gila'kasla," she said.

Judith Sayers,  the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council who recently wrote an editorial in the Tyee about the subject, spoke with On The Island's Gregor Craigie about the significance of the words

Wilson-Raybould talked of being a truth teller guided by the laws and tradition of her Big House. What does that mean?

Her role in the Big House [places for ceremonies and decision-making], has been to be a truth teller — she's told to never speak unless she knows it to be true. 

A lot of Indigenous laws are related to our spiritual, sacred way of life.

Part of it is to do with us as people, how we treat the land and resources and our role in our communities and governance.

What she's talking about here is that area of law as the kind of person that you have to be: one with integrity, honesty and truth telling.

Are you saying her testimony is more credible than someone who comes from a different tradition or how does it compare to others from different traditions?

Other people would have others sources as foundations that they live by, so it's really hard to compare different upbringings and different principles.

But for Wilson-Raybould, this is something she was raised with every day. That's what would guide her in everything that she did as she lived as the attorney general of Canada.

Judith Sayers is the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and a recent recipient of the Order of Canada. (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council)

You point out an interesting irony: she was a federal cabinet minister having to uphold what you've called colonial laws that have often worked against First Nations people.

Can you expand on that?

Part of her commitment of getting involved in federal politics was to change things.

We've been subject to colonial law as the Indian Act, even the constitution, and they haven't always served us well. I think a lot of it has held us back in economic development. A lot of it is just systemic racism and paternalism.

Wilson-Raybould wanted so much to make those big changes within government but ran into a lot of walls every time she tried to do so.

Is the House of Commons and the Government of Canada a place where First Nations politician can thrive and be effective?

If a person can find their place in both worlds — and I really think that you kind of straddle two worlds — you can do OK.

If you can work with the House of Commons and the Senate and try to get them to understand the Indigenous side of things, you'll be OK.

But it's a tough row to hoe.

This interview aired on CBC On The Island on March 4 and has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview below:

With files from On The Island