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Indigenous Woman in Law Breaks New Ground

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed Jody Wilson-Raybould, a First Nations woman, as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General.

I was pleased to hear this. Natives were here before borders. We share mutual struggles and interests. I’m all for supporting one another as Indigenous peoples.

Jody Wilson-Raybould is young, but has a wealth of experience. She earned her law degree from UBC. She became a Crown prosecutor in 2000, and in 2003, she was elected as a commissioner by the Chiefs of the First Nations Summit. While serving as a councilor for the We Wai Kai Nation, where she is a member, she was elected regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations in 2009 and reelected to the post in 2012.

The previous Harper administration wasn’t exactly known for having a solid working relationship with First Nations. The rights of Native peoples were attacked, even through the Court system. Their rights to protest were equated to terrorism, and Nations found themselves at odds with oil companies who wanted to drive pipelines through their pristine lands. Wilson- Raybould has expressed distaste for the way the conservative government operated with First Nations over the past several years. With an Indigenous person like her at the helm, many hope this hostile relationship will change.

Jody’s Kwak'wala name is Puglaas, meaning "Woman Born to Noble People." Besides her education and experience, she will bring a fresh, new perspective to her post. What I’m most excited about is how she will help launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

I get choked up whenever I remember the case of Tina Fontaine, 15, who was reported missing in August of 2014. Tina had only been in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a month before her disappearance. She had run away from foster care when her small 100 pound body was found in the Red River.

Loretta Saunders, 26, was an Inuit student doing a thesis on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Last year, her body was found alongside the Transcanada highway in New Brunswick. She was pregnant when she was murdered.

Tina and Loretta are only 2 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that we’ve seen lately; each and every story is heartbreaking.

According to a recently released report on the subject, there are approximately 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, from 1980-2012 alone. Others say there are even more cases that have not been documented.

United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya called for a national inquiry back in 2014 and a year later, a UN report would state that young First Nations, Métis and Inuit women were five times more likely to die violent deaths than the general population.

Just last month, Prime Minister Trudeau charged Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould with the task of researching the implementation of marijuana legalization and regulation in Canada. Such a development could lead to hemp production on reserves. While it won’t happen overnight, the process has begun. It will be interesting to see if Canada’s marijuana legalization process has any correlation with similar efforts in the lower 48.

As the Chief Judge of a Tribe and a Native woman, I have a unique appreciation for Wilson-Raybould’s journey, as well as the path now set before her. The justice system that Indigenous people of North America find themselves in does not belong to us. Its foundation is in English common law. It was imposed upon us by colonists. Yet, here we are. We are forced to reckon with it, to master its rules and procedure, for the good of our People, and to protect ourselves. We cannot go into negotiations with world governments blindly. We are strong, sovereign Nations. Today, we use our cultural teachings, our spiritual centers, to bring justice and law from within.

President Obama nominated Diane Joyce Humetewa, Hopi, to become a United States Court Judge for the District of Arizona. She was confirmed in 2014 and is the first Nation woman to serve in such a capacity. How amazing would it be to see a Native woman become Attorney-General in the United States as well? Native Nations have an ample number of qualified candidates within our ranks.

What does the future hold for Puglaas? Several former Canadian Prime Ministers were once Justice Ministers and Attorney-Generals. One day, we may see an Indigenous woman leading Canada. At this juncture, the future looks promising and I pray it comes to fruition. I wish her well.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.