Ontario must rebuild First Nations’ trust in legal system: Editorial
Editorial, Toronto Star, February 27, 2013
Reggie Bushie went missing more than five years ago. The 15-year-old’s body was found in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River on Nov. 1, 2007. To this day his family in the remote Poplar Hill First Nation still doesn’t know the full story of his death. An inquest that was originally to look into it was derailed because of a lack of First Nations people in the jury pool.
Sadly, this case isn’t unique. In a searing report entitled First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci points to a “serious and persistent” problem. Ontario’s 300,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit are chronically overrepresented in jails and under-represented on the juries that assess innocence and guilt, or probe deaths. In the Kenora judicial district, for example, more than 30 per cent of residents live on reserves, but make up less than 10 per cent of the jury roll. In Thunder Bay, it’s 5 per cent of residents and just over 1 per cent of the roll. And it’s symptomatic of bigger problems.
“First Nations people are significantly under-represented, not just on juries, but among all those who work in the administration of justice in this province, whether as court officials, prosecutors, defence counsel, or judges,” Iacobucci observes in his report.
The reasons are not hard to find. Many feel alienated. They fail to see their cultural values, laws, or traditional approaches to conflict resolution and restorative justice reflected in the system. Many see it as a foreign imposition that too often works against them.
As a consequence “the justice system generally as applied to First Nations peoples, particularly in the North, is quite frankly in a crisis,” Iacobucci warns. It “has often ignored or discriminated against” native peoples, he reports.
This ought to be a wake-up call to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government. These findings should be required reading for judges, Crown prosecutors, police and others. What’s needed to rebuild trust in the law, Iacobucci argues, is a far greater degree of cultural acceptance and partnership than now exists. Rather than cavil about the word “crisis,” Attorney-General John Gerretsen should take this advice to heart.
Iacobucci’s 17 transformative recommendations include urging Gerretsen to appoint a senior deputy for aboriginal justice issues, and to create a panel to advise on such issues. He also calls for a panel with “substantial First Nations membership” to implement his report. Wisely, Gerretsen has quickly agreed to some of this. Beyond that, Iacobucci calls for in-depth studies on legal representation, First Nations policing, aboriginal court workers and other issues. And he sees a need for cultural training for police, court workers and prison guards.
To address the jury issue Iacobucci recommends that Ontario launch a drive to better educate First Nations on the justice system, in their own languages. He calls for changes to the questionnaire sent to prospective jurors to make it more user-friendly and less coercive sounding. He recommends using Ontario’s health card database to help fill in chronic gaps in the jury roll. And he urges that people be allowed to volunteer for jury duty, that jurors not be excluded because of minor offences, and that they be better compensated. All this would help build trust in the system.
This report should inspire policy-makers not only in Ontario but across the country. It is driven by a deep conviction that the system must no longer fail people such as Reggie Bushie and his grieving family. They should feel shielded by the law and upheld, not threatened and marginalized.