SASKATOON – Is there a better role justice can play in the lives of First Nations people? That question is at the forefront of a three day conference being held at the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon as leaders in the Canadian legal field say what we’re doing now, is simply not working.
Following opening remarks on Wednesday, Justice Murray Sinclair took the stage in front of the best and the brightest when it comes to the law. Nearly 300 people, including several judges and First Nations chiefs, gathered in one room to listen, learn and lead the country when it comes to aboriginal justice.
“It’s recognizing that aboriginal approaches to justice probably have better solutions for the people of those communities, not necessarily for everybody in society but at least for the people of those communities,” said Sinclair.
What they want is self-governance where each community gets to approach justice and correct behaviour as they see fit.
“It will require the legal profession and the legal system to be prepared to reconcile with those changes that are needed.”
The calls come in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report. Sinclair also serves as one of its chairs.
“It begins by the way that we change the teaching of law in the law schools and for those who are currently practicing law it also calls upon us to ensure that the professional development programs that are in place by the law societies are also amended in order to reflect more of this understanding than has been the case to this point in time.”
According to data collected by the Government of Canada and outlined as backgrounder for aboriginal offenders, while aboriginal people made up about four per cent of the Canadian population by February 2013, approximately 23.2 per cent of all federal inmates were aboriginal.
The incarceration rate for aboriginal adults in Canada is estimated to be 10 times higher than the incarceration rate of non-aboriginal adults.
Between March 2010 and January 2013, the Prairies region of the Correctional Service of Canada accounted for 39.1 per cent of all new federal inmate growth. At the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, 63.9 per cent of the population was aboriginal.
“Sometimes incarceration needs to be done, needs to be the answer but often it isn’t.”
According to Sinclair, pre-sentencing reports for aboriginal offenders, while helpful to judges, are not a fix to the problem.
“Incarcerations are still excessively high, they’re not providing the solutions that we need,” added Sinclair. “I’m sure that many judges appreciate having them but what needs to be developed is a means by which the communities become engaged.”
Sinclair also challenges anyone critical of practices like sentencing circles to participate in one to see the type of impact they can have. In the case of a sentencing circle, it’s an added step available to aboriginal offenders.
At a point before a sentencing hearing, a ceremony is held where the offender meets with the victims of the offences, community representatives including elders and members of the justice system.
Sinclair says, often, when an accused has to face their community, addressing members and hearing others talk amongst themselves about you, this process can be much more difficult for the offender than going before a judge.
“Most people can go through an entire legal process from the time that they’re charged until they’re sentenced without saying a word and for many people that’s easy.”