INDIAN IN THE CABINET: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER, Jody Wilson-Raybould
This is a longer review than I normally write. I was particularly interested in Wilson-Raybould’s book because of the unusual brevity of what I believed would be a long career. I read the book carefully expecting valuable insights. I was disappointed as you will learn when you read my review.
A compelling political memoir of leadership and speaking truth to power by one of the most inspiring women of her generation
Jody Wilson-Raybould was raised to be a leader. Inspired by the example of her grandmother, who persevered throughout her life to keep alive the governing traditions of her people, and raised as the daughter of a hereditary chief and Indigenous leader, Wilson-Raybould always knew she would take on leadership roles and responsibilities. She never anticipated, however, that those roles would lead to a journey from her home community of We Wai Kai in British Columbia to Ottawa as Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the Cabinet of then newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
Wilson-Raybould’s experience in Trudeau’s Cabinet reveals important lessons about how we must continue to strengthen our political institutions and culture, and the changes we must make to meet challenges such as racial justice and climate change. As her initial optimism about the possibilities of enacting change while in Cabinet shifted to struggles over inclusivity, deficiencies of political will, and concerns about adherence to core principles of our democracy, Wilson-Raybould stood on principle and, ultimately, resigned. In standing her personal and professional ground and telling the truth in front of the nation, Wilson-Raybould demonstrated the need for greater independence and less partisanship in how we govern.
“Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power is the story of why Wilson-Raybould got into federal politics, her experience as an Indigenous leader sitting around the Cabinet table, her proudest achievements, the very public SNC-Lavalin affair, and how she got out and moved forward. Now sitting as an Independent Member in Parliament, Wilson-Raybould believes there is a better way to govern and a better way for politics–one that will make a better country for all.
Jody Wilson Raybould’s, “Indian In The Cabinet.” is a tell-all book that doesn’t meet expectations. She writes out of both sides of her mouth but says next to nothing. Remember she is a lawyer, a former member of Canada’s House of Commons and was a federal cabinet minister, “Minister of Justice Attorney General of Canada.” Officials in these positions are very aware of the principle of confidentiality. Raybould lives by the principle. She reveals very few facts, very little real-life political-insider information. Either she is adhering closely to the principle or she may just be wary of possible libel lawsuits. Therefore, what does she write? A serious introspection and self-analysis of her life, some perceptions about being Indigenous in Canada, a lot about being an Indigenous woman in parliament and finally, some insights into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Philosophies and principles of life
JWR pays a lot of attention to certain guiding philosophies and principles in her life, lofty ideals more suited to the ‘wish-world’ than to the real one in which we live. She writes confidently and with assurance when describing these rules of life explaining how her family is responsible for their development in her: her grandmother, her mother and father, and her sister, Korty. She often mentions her husband Tim’s reinforcement of these guiding principles. And as she often does throughout the book she credits her Indigenous ancestry as the foundation of her life’s principles.
The guiding principles revolve around the universality of community, compromise and concession. In her ideal political world, policies are developed through input from the entire community, every source having irrefutable value. The real political world operates differently. The wise elders are replaced by experienced, Machiavellian manipulators whose goals are to win the next election, to produce policies that garner votes regardless of their merit, and to bolster the image of the party, especially its leader. Maybe a cynical view of our political system but likely more truthful in JWR’s view than it should be.
Her Indigenous roots
JWR is a member of the Indigenous communities of Canada: 25 nations amalgamated into 43 smaller communities, joined under the umbrella of the Assembly of First Nations. To an outsider, it may sound chaotic and confusing. To the Indigenous, it is a way of life. The most important guiding principle in the community is that all members belong to the community. No one is disregarded or rejected. Rather, each is respected and heard. Equality is lived not preached.
When in parliament, JWR tried to apply the Indigenous principles to the political world of Ottawa and Canada as a broad social mosaic. It was an impossible dream. Maybe the political world we live in is too broad for change that relies on hearing from everyone. Maybe our political world is too consolidated, too rigid to consider other philosophies such as those held by the Indigenous. More likely the explanation rests in power-grabbing. The ‘old boys’ hold it now and will never loosen their grip. Sadly, JWR would clash with this view and lose the battle.
Gentle hand, soft-touch
JWR writes with a gentle hand, a soft touch. She equivocates. She dances around topics. She avoids direct criticisms or specific condemnations. The writing is muddled with lofty personal ideals mixed with nebulous recounting of conversations and communications. Confidentiality anxieties may be steering the course more rather than actual facts. She is well known for recording meeting details in little notebooks for later recall. She likely has greater detail than she wants to reveal, or she prefers the gentle touch in revealing what she does. The result is a much softer story than her readers may be wanting.
Her parliamentary colleague, Celina Caesar-Chavannes labels more specifically and blatantly in her book, “Can you hear me now,” when she declares that Trudeau was guilty of tokenism in having a black woman in the PMO. JWR is Indigenous, of colour, a woman, and a westerner in the hallowed halls of the male-dominated parliament in the east.
SNC-Lavalin is an international engineering firm who some question as operating on the edges of moral propriety. In the Lavalin affair, Trudeau wanted matters handled discretely and in legal ways that were opposed by JWR. She felt Trudeau was overstepping his legal expertise and should have ceded legal analysis and conclusions to her. He did not. Haughty? Misogynistic? Sexist? The white man knows better than Indigenous? Who knows what he was thinking? JWR avoids outright declarations and cuts the Liberal leader a lot of slack. In the end, a reader will not condemn Trudeau as readily as they did during the media kerfuffle of the time. Once more, JWR uses a gentle hand, a soft touch. However, another vestige of her upbringing rests on the family philosophy to remember that “words spoken can never be taken back. So always speak the truth,” and maybe JWR has some misgivings about what is the truth in the affair.
The last word
There is much to praise in the Indian In The Cabinet. The book gives greater recognition and acknowledgement to many unsung civil servants who work hard and honestly in Ottawa. It praises politicians who likely deserve far more than they have received in the past or about whom there is too much misconception – Jane Philpott, John Turner, and Kim Campbell receive attention. JWR praises and honours many people, not just ones in her inner life.
Indian In The Cabinet may be a sad commentary about our society and our political world. Arguably, we may be the least corrupted governance in the world, but we are far from the “just society” Pierre Trudeau talked about. We have not reached Trudeau Sr.’s dream, neither socially, nor politically. JWR is of the same mentality dreaming of lofty, idealistic goals. Her criticisms of Canadian society are justifiable: how we deal with the Indigenous of Canada, how we neglect the homeless, the poor, how we fail the drug-addicted. She may be correct in this condemnation of politics in Canada today. Her criticism of Canadian politics being based on political victory rather than social improvement may be valid. She calls for more openness, transparency, and publicity about what is going on behind closed political doors. Again naivety, lofty ideals with no hope of actualization? But we need the dreamers in our society, the Martin Luther Kings who see the mountain top as we trudge in the valleys below.
It is always easier to criticize and condemn after the fact and in that light, perhaps JWR’s revelations about the SNC Lavalin affair are too lightweight. However, the restriction and rigours of confidentiality may be tying her hands.
She might be justifiably criticized for her light treatment of Trudeau Jr. in relation to the SNC Lavalin affair and his vacillating treatment of her as a cabinet minister, as a woman and as an Indigenous Canadian.
JWR’s book does not feel like it is ripping away the tarps that cover Canadian politics, the band-aids plastered over the wounds and scars. Perhaps she is trying not to burn bridges behind her that may be needed for future political possibilities. Unlikely, as she has sworn off politics after her victory as an independent in the parliament of Canada.
Rather than being seen as a tell-all tale, an expose, perhaps JWR’s book should be relabeled as The Book of Sadness and Disappointment. She was disappointed in how she was ostracized by her parliamentary peers after the SNC Lavalin affair and her departure from cabinet. She was saddened by the treatment given her by so-called friends and colleagues of whom she expected better. Welcome to the real-world Jody.
JWR’s book is far from being any kind of positive paen to political leaders in Canada. However, it isn’t an outright condemnation of them either. She deals with them with a soft hand, be it a pat or a slap.
The closing pages of the book are ones that are particularly engaging, emotional and gratifying: a long list of acknowledgements, a list of political policy achievements, and an album of family and political friends’ photos. These pages confirm JWR as a person to be appreciated, a politician who deserves Canadians’ votes should she decide to run again.