By: Sarah Mack*
June is National Indigenous History Month and we are proud to celebrate the vibrant cultures, unique histories, and crucial contributions of Indigenous peoples to the development of Canada. It is also a time for all Canadians to critically reflect on how we can collectively advance reconciliation—a process that involves acknowledging and repairing harms, rebuilding and forging new relationships, healing, and finding new ways forward.
The 2017-2018 year saw important progress towards these objectives. The federal government acknowledged the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the child welfare system and committed to funding programs to keep families together. The Law Society of Ontario approved recommendations to reform regulatory processes impacting Indigenous peoples in an effort to enhance cultural competency across the legal profession. Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill, aimed at ensuring that Canada’s laws conform with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in the House of Commons.
Despite these valuable milestones, the year also revealed that we still have a long way to go. The acquittals handed down in the cases involving Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine raised questions about the extent of racist underpinnings in the justice system and whether the jury selection process ought to be reformed. It also highlighted the deficiencies in various public institutions – child welfare agencies, police, and courts – in protecting Indigenous youth.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry, launched in 2016, was supposed to see its final report produced by the end of this year. Instead, the commissioners requested a two-year extension. To date, the inquiry has been heavily criticized for delays, lack of transparency, and internal quarreling. Many had hoped that the report would shed light on a national epidemic and pave the way towards greater protection for Indigenous women. It is unclear how long the families of the missing and murdered Indigenous women will have to wait for answers.
On May 10, the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Richard Joseph Catcheway, who spent six months incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Catcheway, a member of the Skownan First Nation, previously pled guilty to breaking into a home in Winnipeg on September 9, 2017. However, at the time the crime was alleged to have occurred, he was more than 200 kilometres away in the custody of Brandon Correctional Centre. Amanda Carling, a Métis lawyer and president of the board of directors at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto, explained in an op-ed published in the Globe and Mail, that for many Indigenous people, pleading guilty despite innocence is a rational choice. Indigenous people are more likely to be denied bail, may not understand their legal options, and may be pressured by their defence counsel to accept an available plea bargain. These stories remind us that our work towards achieving reconciliation is far from over.
Youth from Northern Youth Abroad participated in Level's Indigenous Youth Outreach Program in July 2017 and imagined themselves as justices of the Federal Court of Canada.
Over the past year, Level has continued to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the recommendations released in the Feathers of Hope report. Among these are a demand for greater cultural competency in the legal profession, eliminating the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in custody, and the recognition of Indigenous legal traditions. Feathers of Hope called for an increase in Indigenous youth programming, mentorship, and safe spaces for youth to focus on skill development and building identity.
Level’s Indigenous Youth Outreach Program (IYOP) focuses on empowering Indigenous youth and building legal capacity by exposing them to the justice system in an empowering and interactive way. The program incorporates traditional Indigenous teachings into justice education, promotes mentorship, builds participants’ oral advocacy skills, and encourages a two-way knowledge exchange between communities. Additionally, the program works to improve the cultural competency of its non-Indigenous volunteers, many of whom come from the legal community, by exposing them to Indigenous legal practices and principles.
In 2017/18, Level’s education, research, and advocacy initiatives have sought to advance the ongoing reconciliation dialogue in meaningful and innovative ways. Last summer, we published a report aimed at providing all of our Campus Chapters with fundamental knowledge on the topic. Students at Level’s campus chapters hosted documentary screenings, panel discussions, and even published a journal. Through the Indigenous Youth Justice project, which will conclude in August, we are working with an Indigenous youth council to develop a culturally anchored toolkit for youth, by youth, to enhance their ability to navigate legal issues affecting their lives.
Laylu, from Northern Youth Abroad, participated in Level's Indigenous Youth Outreach Program in July 2017 and imagined herself as counsel appearing before justices of the Federal Court of Canada.
Reconciliation begins at the individual level. In other words, it starts with you. You can take the next step by educating yourself on the unique histories, cultural practices, and experiences of Indigenous peoples. Consider taking a university course in Indigenous law or history or reviewing various reports such as “7 Free Ways to Make a Difference” or “150 Acts of Reconciliation for the Last 150 Days of Canada’s 150.” Attend an Indigenous-led workshop - consider reaching out to the Indigenous Law Students’ Association at your school for their recommendations. Remember to listen carefully, acknowledge any mistakes that you make, and to engage in change-oriented dialogue with an open mind.
Interested in getting involved with Level? Attend a Level Campus Chapter event on your campus during the 2018-2019 academic year. Contact your local Chapter President or Program Manager, Kenya-Jade Pinto, (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information. You can also volunteer for Level’s IYOP program by contacting your local Program Leader or the Director of Programs, Lisa Del Col, (email@example.com) for more information.
Sarah Mack is a Summer Student at Level. She will be entering her third year of the JD program at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law in the fall. Photographs by Kenya-Jade Pinto for Level.