How Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould could change Canada-aboriginal relationship (no pressure)

Maxime Faille was in court last week fighting the federal government.

He hopes Canada’s new Justice Minister will make that a lot more rare.

Jody Wilson-Raybould — former Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief, Crown Prosecutor, treaty commissioner and newly elected MP for the new riding of Vancouver-Granville — is, as of Wednesday afternoon, Justice Minister and Attorney-General.

WATCH: Jody Wilson-Raybould sworn in as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

Symbolically, that’s significant: An indigenous woman and vocal advocate for more collaborative relationships between indigenous peoples and government is now in charge of the file that determines, to a significant degree, the nature of the legal relationship between indigenous peoples and government.

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“It’s an incredibly exciting day. I feel very honoured and privileged to be given this portfolio,” Wilson-Raybould said in a brief, chaotic scrum following the cabinet’s first meeting.

“I’m immensely proud to be an aboriginal person in this country. And I’m equally proud to be a Canadian. And the diversity reflected around the cabinet table, in the House of Commons, is incredibly powerful.”

Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t say anything about how the government will approach a looming deadline to come up with a legislative solution on physician-assisted death, or how she will approach the Liberals’ promise to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Her appointment is “a very strong and powerful statement,” Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an interview.

“Everybody thought that, as a First Nations individual, she should be appointed to Indigenous Affairs. I’m glad to see she wasn’t. …

“We have First Nations people who have skills and education and attributes in many different areas. We don’t have to be pigeonholed into dealing with First Nations issues.”

But this goes beyond symbolism: It could also mean a lot, materially, for Canada’s relationship with its first peoples.

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“Obviously she’ll bring with her her intimate knowledge of these issues and how they play out on the ground.

“And I think she brings with her an understanding of the pent-up frustration there has been over the years with respect to these issues.”

Faille, who heads Gowlings’ Aboriginal Law Group, spends a lot of time litigating First Nations issues.

“I can think of 20 or 30 of my files I’d like [Wilson-Raybould] to look at,” Faille joked.

Last week’s case takes issue with the legitimacy of the TransMountain pipeline environmental assessment, which Faille’s clients argue failed in its constitutional duty to consult aboriginal peoples affected.

“That is kind of a classic file of First Nations saying, ‘Hey, we want to be involved in the process. We want to be listened to and heard and engaged.’ And there hasn’t been sufficient willingness to do that.”

It’s an example of a file he hopes Wilson-Raybould will be able to influence.

She has spent years calling for “a new fiscal relationship,” a more productive, more collaborative relationships between government and aboriginal people, and for indigenous people to be included in decisions affecting them.

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“I’d like to think that, based on the incoming government’s platform, that the position the government — that Canada — is taking is maybe in need of a refresher.”

He’d like to see “a move away from a very litigation-heavy approach and more toward an approach of discussion.”

But he realizes his sky-high hopes are hardly realistic.

“Expectations are obviously high. They’ll be very difficult, probably impossible to meet,” he said.

It’s important to note that while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received kudos for his promise of a “nation-to-nation” relationship between Ottawa and aboriginal people, that concept isn’t new.

It’s been cited in court rulings for decades.

It just hasn’t been put into practice consistently by Canada’s federal government.

“The courts have said time and again ‘Do this’ but clever lawyers always find a way to say, ‘This doesn’t apply here; it only applies there,'” Faille said.

“Using that [nation-to-nation] terminology is significant: It’s a sign of respect. It’s a sign of an understanding that these are not agreements to be imposed — these are agreements to be negotiated.”

Wilson-Raybould repeated that “nation-to-nation” commitment in an interview with Global News Wednesday evening.

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“Our government is committed to ensuring we’re open, honest and transparent and ensuring we sit down on a nation-to-nation basis with aboriginal peoples and build a relationship, and there’s a partner in Ottawa.”

Bellegarde has a long list of laws “that impact in a negative way on inherent rights and treaty rights” that he hopes Wilson-Raybould will review. Bills C-51, C-38, C-45 and C-27 are among them — not to mention a slew of omnibus bills.

“There’s a number of bills that really are bad legislation,” Bellegard said.

“Doing a federal law review is one of the key things we’ll look for from her.”

There will be no shortage of cases like that on her plate as justice minister: Right now the feds are fighting First Nations over such resource projects as Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain; there are protracted land-claims cases pending; and the justice minister will no doubt have a hand in crafting an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as possibly investigating a raft of allegations of police abuse in Val d’Or and elsewhere.

There’s also the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations Trudeau’s pledged to implement, and the international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

But the potential for change goes deeper than that.

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As Dianne Corbiere notes, the new justice minister will have a historic chance to repair a relationship between aboriginal peoples and the legal system that for centuries has been mostly adversarial.

“Our legal profession has had a lot to do with the harms caused to indigenous peoples,” said Corbiere, bencher for the Law Society of Upper Canada and past president of the Indigenous Bar Association.

“Now we have an opportunity. … I think there are a lot of people that want to work with her, and are looking forward to it.”

Last year, Wilson-Raybould was among many people applauding the Supreme Court’s recognition of Tsilhqot’in Nation’s land claim.

Now Bellegarde wants that “game -changer” decision to factor into federal policy-making. A review of comprehensive claims, for example, and an update to Canada’s right-to-self-governance policy.

“There has to be a forum where these Supreme Court decisions are given life.”

It’s been a “wonderful” day, Corbiere said.

“Everyone’s always a cynic, but I’m hopeful,” she said.

“It’s exciting times.”


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