Chances are, if you’re ever inside a Saskatchewan courtroom, the judge is going to be white.
Out of the 89 judges and justices in the province, just five identify as Indigenous and three as a visible minority, according to Saskatchewan’s justice ministry.
Four of the Indigenous judges and two of the visible minority judges work in provincial court, while the others work in Queen’s Bench.
Provincial court judge Mary McAuley, a Métis woman who speaks Cree fluently, was appointed in March 2018. McAuley said she’s seen many marginalized people enter the courtroom with no trust in a system with roots in Canada’s colonial history.
“They’re intimidated, they’re confused or they’re angry,” she said, highlighting language and perceived biases as potential barriers for witnesses and offenders.
‘That fear is gone’
About 16.6 per cent of the province’s population is Indigenous and 10.8 per cent identify as a visible minority, according to 2016 census data.
Meanwhile, figures from the governments of Canada and Saskatchewan show that Indigenous incarceration rates in the province are 65 per cent federally and 75 per cent provincially.
McAuley said it’s important that the judiciary reflect all of the communities it serves.
“It goes a long way in earning their trust that they could come into this courtroom, they can be heard (and) there’s people there that understand them, that could relate to them,” McAuley said.
Sometimes, she speaks to them in Cree.
“The minute that happens … this dialogue just opens up. They start asking questions. They start speaking freely. The intimidation, that fear is gone,” said McAuley, who grew up in Cumberland House and is now based in Prince Albert.
“It’s nice to open those closed doors.”
Foluke Laosebikan, a lawyer based in Melfort, Sask., said fair adjudication can be informed by a lived understanding of people’s experiences.
“To have lived and experiential understanding is very different from just knowing about something,” said Laosebikan, who is from Nigeria.
“The importance cannot be overstated of people who have had similar experiences and who are better able not only to identify with those perspectives, but … to offer solutions and remedies that are relevant and that address what the real issues are.”
“The system caters better to others than it does to some, so that is something that is not a secret,” Laosebikan said.
Judiciary one piece of the puzzle
The justice ministry said it has appointed five Indigenous judges since March 2018.
“Appointing more Indigenous judges is part of our continued commitment to increased representation and enhanced voices of First Nations and Métis in the justice system,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Global News.
McAuley said that’s a great step, though tackling the system’s weaknesses goes beyond judicial appointments.
Going forward, she’d like to see a more innovative approach to sentencing, like healing lodges, which provide culturally sensitive programming to Indigenous people who are incarcerated.
She’d also like to see more supports for addictions centres.
“You have to heal the people from the inside out. So you don’t go after the symptoms … you have to go to the root problem,” she said.
“There’s a lot of the resources that have to come into play first before we could actually start dealing more innovatively with these sentences, as opposed to always jail.”