By Mabell, Dave on March 14, 2018.
Canada’s court system is perpetuating the damage caused by the nation’s infamous residential schools, warns a Lethbridge lawyer.
Though many reports and inquiries have recommended changes, defence lawyer Ingrid Hess says very few have been implemented. And that includes one judge’s call for an end to “pre-emptive challenges” that can keep First Nations residents off jury panels.
That recommendation came 27 years ago, she told the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs on Tuesday.
“How little we have actually achieved” over the years since then.
Its importance was brought to light once again in North Battleford, Sask., Hess said, where a defence lawyer used those challenges to eliminate all who appeared aboriginal from the jury trying Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley. He was facing a charge of second-degree murder of a young Cree man who came onto his land; the all-white jury found him not guilty.
“The perception of injustice is strong,” Hess said.
Northwestern Saskatchewan has a long history of conflict, she pointed out. Following the Frog Lake Massacre in 1885, a Battlefords judge ordered the mass hanging of eight aboriginal men – with children in the nearby residential school brought there to witness Canadian justice.
And despite treaty provisions, Cree families were forced off their land as white settlers arrived. Those conflicts over land persist to this day, Hess added.
Yet when Saskatchewan’s chief justice was asked why the Crown was not appealing the Stanley verdict, Hess said, he made no mention of these long-festering conflicts. Instead, he criticized those who questioned the jury’s impartiality.
“What struck me is how dispassionate he was,” she said, offering no understanding of the longstanding issues raised.
Despite ongoing reports of racism, she told a questioner, Crown prosecutors are reluctant to move high-profile trials to a larger city where emotions are not so raw. Hess pointed out Saskatoon, the nearest major city, is notorious for its “starlight tours” in which city police drove First Nations men out of town, then left them to perish in winter.
But the impacts of racism have been reported in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and other Canadian cities as well, Hess noted.
“These cases make reconciliation more difficult.”
Though many Canadians are addressing the issues raised by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Hess held reforms in our justice system as one step forward – including an end to pre-emptive challenges.
Because they allow for all-white juries, it is “repugnant to allow them to continue.”
Canadians must also urge better investigations, better policing and better child protection if they hope for less racism and more understanding, she suggested.
But they should also recognize how race-based their justice system remains. In Alberta, Hess said, while aboriginal people represent about six per cent of the population, 30 per cent of the men in jail here are aboriginal men – and 52 per cent of the women are aboriginal.
That’s perpetuating the same disruptions and family breakdown as the residential schools, Hess said.
“The jails are like today’s residential schools,” she said.
“But now we are taking the parents away.”
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