When I saw recent photos of Canada’s new Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould I was taken in by her captivating, wise, deep and dark eyes. I recognized them as the distinctive eyes of someone I still call a friend, and first met years ago as a CBC-TV reporter covering historic First Ministers meetings on the Constitution in 1983.
Bill Wilson, the articulate young Chief of the Kawakiutl First Nation of Campbell River, B.C., attended the meetings as vice-president of the Native Council of Canada. Chief Wilson explained to government leaders that Indigenous Canadians really want the same things for their kids as the rest of us. He had a striking exchange with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
“I have two children who wish to be lawyers, and both of whom also wish to be prime minister,” Wilson told Trudeau. “And both of whom are also women.” There was laughter and applause from First Ministers and Canada’s Inuit, Métis and First Nations leaders. Trudeau shot back, “I’ll stick around till their ready.”
He didn’t of course. Pierre Trudeau left office a year later and passed away in 2000. He did not live to see one of Wilson’s daughters take the oath of office as the nation’s first Indigenous attorney general.
To see Wilson-Raybould appointed to cabinet by another Trudeau is, in itself, a wonderful and delicious irony. But there is much more than that. I reviewed my original news coverage of that 1983 conference at CBC Archives, and was struck how far as a country we’ve come since then. Yes, Indigenous peoples did see their rights enshrined in the Constitution, and one is now Minister of Justice.
That 1983 First Ministers meeting may have been the first time Canada saw the real face of Indigenous peoples. Chief Wilson was joined around the huge table with other “Native leaders” – that’s what we called them. There was George Erasmus, later chair of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples; John Amagoalik, a young Inuk who earned distinction as the Father of Nunavut; Charlie Watt, another Inuit now with more than 35 years’ service in the Senate; and the ever-determined and committed Clem Chartier, a 1984 president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples who remains a distinguished Métis leader.
First Ministers and the whole country surely knew then these bright young Aboriginal leaders had the right stuff. Getting that message to sink into the national conscience took a little longer. Recently I was fortunate to be invited to join Canadians For A New Partnership, an initiative undertaken by Dene Chief Steven Kakfwi, former premier of the Northwest Territories. He assembled a board of directors that includes two former prime ministers, Joe Clark and Paul Martin; a former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci; former auditor general Sheila Fraser; and other distinguished leaders from academia, business, public service and the legal profession. They have all signed a declaration that bears Justin Trudeau’s signature, too, stating a commitment to build a new partnership with Indigenous peoples based on mutual respect and equality.
I know we are making progress. More encouraging than witnessing Aboriginal Canadians take their place in a new government is the extent our country has acknowledged they, in fact, belong.
(Editor’s note: the author was founding chair of the Canadian Polar Commission, and a veteran journalist who first joined the CBC as a reporter in Iqaluit in 1967)