Former federal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould wants leaders to become “in-betweeners”. In a keynote speech at the B.C. Women’s Health Foundation’s Illuminations luncheon on March 31, the bestselling author elaborated on this concept.
“One of the legacies of colonialism is the building up of visible and invisible barriers and the silos between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—and between Crown governments and First Nations,” Wilson-Raybould said in a ballroom at the Parq Vancouver. “We do not understand each other, our ways of talking, and viewing the world nearly as much as we need to—nor as much as we think we do.”
The former justice minister stated that an in-betweener walks among different silos and translates viewpoints to different groups. If leaders cultivate in-betweeners within their organizations, she maintained that this will promote greater understanding.
Wilson-Raybould descends from the Msugamagw Tsawtaineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach First Nations. She noted that in-betweeners already exist in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. But according to her, there aren’t nearly enough of them.
In addition, the former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations emphasized the importance of leaders having courage to think and act differently.
“Some of the greatest contributors to the work of reconciliation are non-Indigenous peoples who have listened, learned, gained trust, and developed skills to work between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities’ realities in bold, constructive, and unique ways,” Wilson-Raybould declared.
She added that this isn’t easy.
“It takes courage and it demands being uncomfortable. It often means breaking away from and out of expectations—in other words, being a leader.”
The ex-politician then challenged people in the room to ask themselves what they are doing in relation to reconciliation.
“Am I being an in-betweener?” she asked. “Am I breaking down silos; am I uncomfortable?”
Wilson-Raybould on Indigenous traditions
The B.C. Women’s Health Foundation describes the Illuminations luncheon as its “signature education, awareness, and fundraising event”. It also marks the culmination of Women’s Health Research Month.
This year, Illuminations raised more than $363,000 to fund research awards offered through the Women’s Health Research Institute.
In her speech at the luncheon, Wilson-Raybould shared two “lessons” in addition to her advice to become an in-betweener. (This topic was also covered in her book True Reconciliation: How to Be a Force for Change.)
Jody Wilson-Raybould writes about being a force for change in True Reconciliation.
First, she drew on her experiences as a First Nations woman to convey the importance of women in leadership making “the invisible visible”. Secondly, Wilson-Raybould recommended staying “true to one’s self in terms of being a leader and while one is leading”. She suggested that this is inextricably linked to integrity.
“For me, this has meant drawing sustenance and guidance from my upbringing, worldview, and culture at every step of my leadership path, especially when one is challenged or pushed or told to go in another direction,” she stated.
Wilson-Raybould is from the Eagle Clan within the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. Her grandmother, Ethel Pearson (Pugladee), bestowed upon her the traditional name Puglaas in a potlatch ceremony. It means “woman born to noble people”.
At the Illuminations luncheon, Wilson-Raybould explained that she comes from a matrilineal society in which descent and property is inherited through the female line.
“Women carry high-rank roles and responsibilities and knowledge,” she said. “We have hereditary chiefs, always men, who are groomed from the time they are born. But they are groomed by women.”
The Ministry of Justice released this video of Wilson-Raybould speaking about her grandmother.
Hiligaxste’ leads chief into Big House
Her father is longtime Indigenous leader Bill Wilson. He carries the Indigenous name Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla, which means “number one among eagles”.
“He was given his name in a potlatch, which is our traditional form of governance, one that we still practise today,” Wilson-Raybould said. “It is here where laws are passed down, where names are given from generation to generation.”
She explained that potlatches are where people are married, disputes are settled, and wealth is redistributed.
“Rank is reflected in positions and names, which bring with them considerable responsibility and obligation,” she continued.
Pearson’s name, Pugladee, was the highest ranking male or female name in her Eagle Clan. It’s now held by Wilson-Raybould’s sister Kory, who also attended the luncheon. Pugladee means “good host”.
“So, my grandmother used to joke that when it came to the respective roles of men and women in our society, women were simply too busy and too important to be chiefs,” Wilson-Raybould quipped. “My grandmother, our grandmother, ensured that we knew our culture, our value, the laws in our Big House, and how to conduct ourselves as leaders. I am certainly grateful to have come from a very strong and loving family who raised me to be proud of who I am.”
Wilson-Raybould’s role within the clan is Hiligaxste’, which is always held by a woman. One of her responsibilities is leading the chief into the Big House.
“So Hiligaxste’ can be loosely translated as one who corrects the chief’s path,” she said. “We show them the way.”
Grandmother spoke about oppression
Wilson-Raybould also revealed that her sister, Kory, tape-recorded conversations with their grandmother before the elder died.
“On these recordings, my grandmother recounted how she and others had to fight to preserve our traditions and the ways of the Big House,” Wilson-Raybould said.
This occurred in the face of Canada’s efforts to eradicate these traditions through the Indian residential schools program, Indian Act, and creation of First Nations reserves. Under the Indian Act, it was a crime for First Nations people to hire a lawyer to advocate for their legal rights.
Wilson-Raybould’s grandmother revealed that members of her First Nation continued the practices of the Big House, despite these prohibitions. They would keep an eye out for the local Indian agent. And when he showed up, they would switch to singing Christian hymns or doing other things that this agent accepted.
According to her, traditions of the Big House and potlatch provide a very different model of government and leadership than what people are accustomed to in Canadian society.
“In the Big House, there are no political parties. No partisanship,” Wilson-Raybould stated. “Rather, while there is rank, we govern through the principle of consensus.”
She added that the greatest state of well-being came when there was “balance”.
“This includes balance between humans and the natural world, between genders, between groups of peoples within family or community, or in how we live and organize our own lives,” she stated. “Balance is viewed as the proper state of things where conditions of harmony and justice flourish.”
Wilson-Raybould blasts partisanship
The former politician contrasted that with the highly partisan world of Canadian politics.
“Excessive partisanship, as we have in our federal and provincial politics today, is in my view antithetical and corrosive to true leadership,” Wilson-Raybould declared. “It is the opposite of bold leadership.”
Moreover, after arriving in Ottawa as the MP for Vancouver Granville and a member of the Liberal cabinet in 2015, she learned how disinterested political leaders—and the entire governance system—were in building consensus around the best ideas.
“In our politics, ideas are not judged on their merit or value,” she said.
Rather, Wilson-Raybould believes that they’re evaluated on the basis of who utters them. If the person in your party says something, she said that the idea is unassailable. But if the idea comes from another party, it’s either wrong, bad, or dangerous.
“Similarly, one is not supposed to think for oneself,” Wilson-Raybould alleged. “Rather, one is to imitate or parrot whatever the party line is. One is never to lead, always to follow. Never call out someone for doing something wrong if that someone is within one’s own party and always say someone from another party is doing something wrong even if they’re not.
“Never state truth to power,” she continued. “Just accept that power is truth.”
Still contemplating + reflecting on the generosity + depth of @Puglaas.
When we move beyond partisanship into spaces of authentic storytelling + wisdom – we create moments of solidarity. Shukriya.🙏🏾#leadership #equity #justice #matriarchy #womenshealthresearch #WHRM @BCWomensFdn pic.twitter.com/Yj0GuYydNj
— Mita Naidu (@MitaNaidu1) April 1, 2023
No choice but to speak out
Yet it was her training as the Hiligaxte’ within the Eagle Clan that guided her in 2019 when she faced a monumental political challenge. At that time, the prime minister’s office was pressing her department to offer a deferred-prosecution deal to engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
In her speech, Wilson-Raybould did not mention Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or SNC-Lavalin by name. However, she declared that she had no choice but to speak out about the rule of law. Futhermore, she stated that many in the room, and women in particular, face this type of challenge regularly. It occurs when they “push back on hypocrisy and contradictions that are part of the status quo to ensure basic values and principles of equality, equity, respect, care, and inclusion are upheld”.
Wilson-Raybould also spoke at the luncheon about how “being a leader and an agent of change in traditionally male-dominated environments” takes sacrifice, endurance, and relentlessness. She acknowledged how easy it is for women to be labelled in racialized and gendered terms or subjected to a different standard.
Moreover, Wilson-Raybould said that when women stand up for principles, rely on lived experience, or bring forward actual knowledge and experience, they are “easily and reflexively labelled as difficult”.
“Well, I can tell you if doing all of these things means that one is difficult, I am incredibly proud to be difficult every single day,” Wilson-Raybould said to prolonged applause.