Calls to Reform Access to Justice in Isolated Indigenous Communities

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Calls to reform access to justice in isolated Indigenous communities

In isolated First Nations in Northern Ontario, judges, lawyers and court staff are sometimes flown to Indigenous communities isolated to hold court hearings.

As in-person court hearings resume in remote Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario, an organization is trying to spark an in-depth discussion about on-reserve justice.

Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services, which promotes community justice, has partnered with several consulting firms to determine, with Indigenous communities, what they think of the return of in-person court hearings.

These hearings were suspended at the start of the pandemic.

There was a series of questions that were posed to the communities which mainly related to the health and safety measures that the communities required for the return of the hearings, explains the director of legal services of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services, Don Rusnak.

“But there is also a long-term discussion that was built into the questions about what the justice system should look like in the long-term, in their opinion. »

— Don Rusnak, Director of Legal Services, Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services

The consultations were funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

Don Rusnak is the Director of Legal Services for Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services.

The seaplane court system allows judges, lawyers and court staff to be flown to isolated Indigenous communities for a day at a time to hold hearings on a variety of issues, often in a school or community.

There are 29 such courts in Ontario, including 24 in the northwestern part of the province, according to a report by the Ontario Court of Justice.< /p>

However, according to Don Rusnak, the very idea of ​​bringing Western justice to First Nations is inherently problematic.

Many of the problems in the communities are rooted in the interaction between the Western law and a clash of cultures, as well as First Nations realities, he notes.

Other critics of the system believe that the heavy burden of these courts, during their short stay in Indigenous communities, leads to decisions that ultimately serve neither the communities nor the defendants.

Thus, they say, people who have committed serious offenses get off too easily.

Especially in the drug trade, I would like to see a long incarceration in order to discourage drug trafficking in our communities, because it cripples us,” says Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation Chief Donny Morris.

He adds that residents of his community know who is responsible for the drug trade, but are reluctant to report them to the authorities, because they don't believe they will take appropriate action.

Donny Morris is the Chief of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation.

Don Rusnak cites the recent knife attacks in the James Smith Cree Nation of Saskatchewan, perpetrated by a man who already had a history of violent acts, as an example of the potential dangers of not taking violent crime seriously.

Just last week we had our annual general meeting where one of the attendees told a very disturbing and sad story about a family member who was the victim of a crime, involving a repeat offender, notes he.

Mr. Rusnak also compares the justice system to a monster that grabs first-time offenders, often young people, and traps them.

It's hard for them to get out the grip of the system that drags them into a cycle of offense and recidivism, he says.

Allan Rae, who is a member of the Sandy Lake First Nation band council, points out that those who are sent to prison do not receive any advice or help in order to integrate back into their communities after their release.

They are starting to rub shoulders with people with bad intentions, like gang members, he says.

Allan Rae, Donny Morris and Don Rusnak all three claim that improving infrastructure is a possible solution.

Donny Morris wants to see an integrated court and police detachment which he hopes will provide a stronger police presence in the community as well as a more responsive court system.

If we have the proper infrastructure, I think [judges, lawyers and staff] would arrive earlier and leave later.

Sandy Lake First Nation is evaluating the possibility of build a healing and wellness center that would help people in conflict with the law, according to Allan Rae.

Too often, customers are taken out of the community. There is no proper follow-up within the justice system, he says.

“With a center of healing and well-being, I believe that the community would benefit from more positive assistance and adequate follow-up for the accused person, especially with the youth.

— Allan Rae, Sandy Lake First Nation Band Council Member

In January of this year, the federal government, the Government of British Columbia and the First Nations Justice Council of British Columbia signed an agreement to fund Indigenous Justice Centers .

Ottawa has committed more than $8.9 million over five years to the project.

Asked if the federal government would be willing to fund projects like those suggested by Allan Raue and Donny Morris, a spokesman for Attorney General David Lametti, David Taylor, replied that the administration of justice is the responsibility of province.

Ottawa last spring partnered with Ontario and Ontario's Indigenous leaders, Taylor said, to try to fill the gaps in legal services, noted in First Nations.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario indicates that the province is investing money in the improvement access to high-speed internet and videoconferencing equipment to enable court hearings to be held in all 29 isolated communities.

It clarifies that virtual hearings cannot not replace the seaplane court system, but allow nt to improve access to justice.

With information from Heather Kitching, CBC News

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