Canada’s justice system is in crisis, and it isn’t news

Hill Times May 5, 2020

On a snowy day in another life, I had the honour of meeting Rupert Ross. He was a Crown attorney in northern Ontario, and he was looking to retire after a long career. But not on this day. On this day, he was advocating for better social programs for Indigenous peoples so they wouldn’t end up in the court system. Rupert wrote about the court system and his experience, and he was open about his pain of not being able to fix things in the system that were broken. That was over 15 years ago.

If there is a constant in the justice system, it is the constant resistance to admit that there is racism in the justice system and perhaps without any consequence for the perpetrator. Remember the bank incident this winter in which local police somehow handcuffed a 12-year old girl and her grandfather in a bank? Yes, they were First Nations. In British Columbia, Indigenous lawyers shared some of their experiences of enduring racism in a provocative video called “But I Was Wearing a Suit,” produced in 2017. Please watch it. Indigenous lawyers describe being asked to leave the courtroom as if they don’t belong, or assumed to be the accused. These individuals are the lawyers in the court; imagine the experience of Indigenous plaintiffs and accused. The good news is that one provincial body has decided to lead change. Legal Aid B.C. has completed its Reconciliation Action Plan, and it is a model for transformative change at an organizational and potentially sector level.

In another part of the country, Winnipeg Police shot and killed three First Nations individuals in three separate incidents in 10 days. In one of these losses, a 16-year old girl was shot and killed. The family was unable to hold a ceremony due to covid-19. Community and extended family attempted to put candles on the street where she was killed, and the local police blocked the area and called it a protest.

A protest.

We need a reputable organization that collects data on racism, which has the legal mandate to force change in police forces. We need to legislate change, because there’s more than enough data already on what needs to be fixed. We’ve been waiting far too long for change to be made, and now we will have to legislate it.

We also need a similar body or ombudsman for the court system. Perhaps it’s time for the Indigenous Parliament to be instituted which includes Indigenous ombuds for policing, courts, and more. With legislated powers to enforce change.

On a brisk day in November 1996, cochair George Erasmus said in the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report: “We challenge people to demonstrate how the current situation, in purely fiscal terms, could possibly, over time, be superior to the approach we are putting forward. The status quo would dig a deeper hole…. At bottom, of course, this is a question of priorities and leadership and vision. Our view is that it would be a tragedy of historic dimensions if, at a time when there is finally awareness of the errors of past aboriginal policy, governments were to say: ‘We now know what the problem is and we now know how to solve it.’ We just can’t.”

Hindsight is painful, isn’t it. You know what will be more painful? Waiting another two decades.