This article has been written by Rayanna Seymour Hourie*, our local Winnipeg Program Leader
From January to April, Indigenous youth in grade 7 & 8 from William Whyte Middle School gathered with volunteer Indigenous lawyers and law students for a total of 10 sessions to learn the basics of the Canadian criminal justice system and the incorporation of Indigenous practices.
On the first day of our program, there were 5 Indigenous lawyers and law students. One of the students said to us, “I was not expecting lawyers to look like this. I was expecting old white men,” which shows how impactful this program is in showing these youth that people who look like them can become lawyers.
The criminal mock trial was about a young boy, their age of 13, who was accused and charged with assault causing bodily harm. The youth would split up with the volunteers and brainstorm arguments for both sides, while also incorporating mens rea, actus reus, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal principles in these arguments. The speed of how quickly these youth learned about these tough law concepts was inspiring.
Some of the youth completely jumped into the exercise, fully engaging and having fun playing their roles. For others, it would take a little bit of extra time for them to come out of their shells.
After months of learning and getting to know each other, we finally got together for our criminal mock trial. The principal of William Whyte sat as the judge, and the vice principal was the mock police deputee. The youth stood up, spoke loud for their clients and successfully argued the law. Although one of the counsel was sad for ‘losing’, they still found the exercise rewarding, and a few of students have been inspired to pursue law as their career.
In addition to the trial, what also made the program successful was the mock sentencing circle. It is important to introduce the youth to restorative justice, and this exercise had every student and volunteer engaged in role playing. For this exercise, everyone in the circle decided as a community that the accused should apologize and perform community service. This exercise is important to IYOP, as it shows that the colonial system is not the only option to bringing justice forward; there are community driven ways as well.
What made this program especially meaningful, was during our time together, the two verdicts regarding the deaths of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine were released. The volunteers and I were having a really hard time with the aftermath of these verdicts and the pain felt in our communities. But we still made it to our IYOP sessions and ended up having sharing circles about both of the verdicts with the youth. They knew what was happening and expressed their feelings or just listened to the adults. Either way, we had a good smudge, some good talks, and some good laughs. These kids are our future.
Overall, the students had a fantastic time, our court room was our class room, my law school lent its robes for the youth and everyone was ready to give it their all. The volunteer lawyers and law students were pleased with the program, and most are excited to do another year of IYOP. I would like to thank the IYOP volunteers: Alyssa Bird, Danielle Morrison, Clifford Anderson, Sandra Gaballa, Corrine Lavalee, Jeremy McKay & Victoria Perrie.
I'd also like to shout out to the national IYOP sponsors with special thanks to The Winnipeg Foundation for making the Winnipeg launch possible!
*Rayanna is from Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing (Big Island), in Treaty #3 territory. She is in her third and final year of law school at Robson Hall, University of Manitoba. Law was her career choice because it opens a lot of doors for various types of careers working with Indigenous peoples and helping protect the land and water.
Level sends thanks Rayanna for her leadership and commitment to the program!