After the closing Thursday of the Assembly of First Nations annual December meeting In Ottawa, Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former federal justice minister and AFN regional chief, was honoured by First Nations leaders during a ceremony that saw her called a hero, a trailbreaker and an icon.
Wilson-Raybould, who was kicked out of the Liberal caucus over the SNC-Lavalin affair, retained her Vancouver-Granville seat during the last federal election running as an Independent.
Speaking after the ceremony, Wiilson-Raybould said pushing for an Indigenous rights recognition framework, along with legislated emissions targets to fight climate change, were two of her main priorities as she takes her seat as an Independent MP.
She said she supported the Liberal throne speech promise to pass legislation on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration sets out minimum standards for how countries deal with Indigenous Peoples.
However, she said that it was not enough. She said new legislation was needed to change policies and laws that respect Indigenous rights and allow First Nations to rebuild their governments outside of the Indian Act.
"Saying you are going to make laws consistent with UNDRIP is one thing, doing it is another," said Wilson-Raybould.
"Laws and policies have to change and I am hopeful that it will happen through a rights and recognition framework."
The previous Justin Trudeau government, while Wilson-Raybould was justice minister, attempted to develop an Indigenous rights recognition framework, to enshrine section 35 constitutional rights in federal legislation.
The file was led by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, but it ultimately failed after facing opposition from First Nations leaders who said department officials weren't listening to their views as they developed the framework.
The issue also created a policy stand-off between Bennett and Wilson-Raybould which drew in the prime minister.
The seeds of the SNC-Lavalin affair — which ultimately led to Wilson-Raybould's expulsion from the Liberal caucus —were planted as the proposed framework was starting to fail.
'They dragged you through the mud'
In speeches during the ceremony honouring Wilson-Raybould, which was organized by the British Columbia and Yukon leadership, First Nations leaders referred to her role in the SNC-Lavalin affair and her pivotal testimony before the House of Commons justice committee.
The SNC-Lavalin affair revolved around alleged attempts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office to pressure Wilson-Raybould, while she was justice minister and attorney general, to consider giving the Montreal engineering firm a pass on a bribery trial in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement.
Cheryl Casimer, who was representing the First Nations Summit from B.C., recalled watching Wilson-Raybould's committee testimony during a meeting with Canadian and B.C. officials.
"Canada in particular was feeling very uncomfortable sitting at the table with us," said Casimer.
"When you sat there and you spoke your truth, I never felt such a great sense of pride in being an Indigenous person."
AFN B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee praised Wilson-Raybould's strength as she faced the political machinery of the Liberal Party as it fought back while the scandal raged.
"They dragged you through the mud a few times," said Teegee.
"And you said, 'I have to be tough,' and you are. You are strong."
AFN Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek gave Wilson-Raybould a painting of an eagle crest and a silver bracelet engraved with a wolf and a crow.
"When you lead from a place of integrity, a place of respect, a place of traditional values, that is what leadership is," said Adamek.
"It's about how you show up and who you are."
'We still need you in that House'
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde praised Wilson-Raybould's leadership, both as an AFN regional chief, and as a federal politician.
Bellegarde said First Nations from across the country will need her help to push First Nations issues in the coming minority session of Parliament.
"You've made history, in so many ways," said Bellegarde.
"You walk with truth and honestly; you walk with love and respect; you walk with courage, love and humility... We still need you in that House."
Wilson-Raybould said she would be using her voice as a parliamentarian, "sitting in the very back corner" of the House of Commons to push for continued changes in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.