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Opening dialogue on law

Friday January 24, 2014

Hello? Yes, hello Your Honour. May I address the Court? Thank you.

Yes, I will stand. In fact, Your Honour, and I know this is unusual, but I was hoping to speak to the body of the Court today. All of them, actually. Like, the public.

Yes, I know, Your Honour, most of them aren’t here in the courtroom today. Doesn’t it make you feel kind of lonely? But you will agree, of course, that they have a right to know what goes on in here. In fact, our jobs kind of depend on it, wouldn’t you say? Yes, Your Honour, I know that visitors are welcome in the courtrooms of Ontario. It says so on the door.

But even when people come to visit us, we really aren’t the easiest people to understand, wouldn’t you say? I mean, first of all, wasn’t our legal system invented in England? And aren’t most of the laws we use created in Ottawa and Toronto? That symbol hanging on the wall above your head, have you looked at it lately? Lions?

Finally, Your Honour, I won’t speak for you, but look at me. I’ve been living in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation about five years, but I’m pretty sure most of the people we serve have roots here going back a lot longer than that. Yes, thank you Your Honour. Thousands of years longer. So you’ll agree, I’m sure, that we have some explaining to do. Do please forgive me if I turn my back to you once in a while, Your Honour. There are some other important people to talk about this with…

Boozhoo. Wachiye. Tanisi. Hi. My name is Simon Owen, and I am thrilled to be starting this column on justice issues for Wawatay. Some of this space will be devoted to understanding the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the criminal justice system, from my perspective as a non-indigenous Canadian who is lucky enough to work in it.

But this column will include more than just facts about how the legal system operates in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Information matters, of course, but the concept of justice, in both the European-Canadian and Anishinaabe traditions, includes so much more than what we can read in law books or hear when we walk into a courtroom.

Justice may have a system, but if a system doesn’t have justice, it’s not going to be good for much. And, however much old Englishmen in wigs may have wished it, some of their ideas just don’t make the same sense in NAN territory as they did in the British towns of the 19th-century, or even in the Canadian cities of today.

I will not be surprising anyone to say that there are some longstanding complaints about how the Canadian justice system has ‘justly’ served Indigenous people, and encountered Indigenous sovereignty. These complaints are supported by some hard and ugly numbers: across Canada, Indigenous people represent about 3 per cent of the population, but roughly 25 per cent of those in provincial and federal prisons.

This disgrace is even more apparent in our region: often, the criminal court dockets in towns such as Kenora and Sioux Lookout contain nothing but Anishinaabe names, and jails across the north are groaning beyond capacity with Indigenous inmates.

But the bearers of suits and robes and uniforms remain dominantly white. If we are in the same boat, it is dangerously unbalanced. There is some reason to hope, however. While we may not all be rowing to the same rhythm, there are many in this system, at least, who are pulling hard with all their strength…

Last year in late November, NAN leaders and justice workers gathered in Thunder Bay to share ideas on how to navigate the way ahead. The core theme of the conference was ‘Empowering Communities’.

Empowerment, we heard, might look like this: a system’s emphasis on healing wounds instead of inflicting new ones. Circles that support deep listening and integrate resources early on in every crisis. Legal services that are not whittled thin by lack of funds or up-front imprisonment. Local laws that can finally be implemented at a local level. Sentencing options fully informed by the truth of inter-generational trauma. Above all, justice that is more creative, collaborative, and compassionate, more rooted in Anishinaabe wisdom than yoked to British logic.

Most people gathered at that conference seemed to generally agree with these sentiments, but we remain in the early words of a conversation that is anything but easy. My hope is that this column can contribute in some small way to the dialogue that we must have together, if a vision of shared justice is ever to be realized in our region. So stay tuned – and if you have questions, ideas, stories or challenges to pitch in to this space, I promise to respond – subject of course to the not-so fine print disclaimer!

Meegwetch. And thank you, Your Honour. Yes, that’s it for now. Case closed. I mean opened.

These columns represent the personal views of the author alone, and not of any organization that he may be associated with. Nothing in these columns should be taken as legal advice; please consult a properly instructed lawyer for any legal issues you may have.

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