There is a common misconception that Indigenous people “get off easy,” and Legal Aid Alberta lawyers want to set the record straight.
“Considering the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our prisons, I can’t imagine where that idea comes from,” said Jessica Buffalo, LAA staff lawyer who works in the Calgary Indigenous Court.
She and her colleagues are hosting a free public webinar on Indigenous Courts and restorative justice on June 24 to bust myths and shed light on the way this legal innovation delivers equity and fairness to Indigenous people.
“Indigenous Court is not a get-out-of-jail card. People have to be prepared to do the hard work of facing their traumas, and that in itself can be traumatic. Some people just aren’t ready.”
“The discovery of the remains of children at residential schools strengthens the need for Indigenous Courts to exist – these courts explore a person’s history and the impact of intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools, the sixties scoop and other systemic injustices,” said Buffalo.
Indigenous Court is a specialized court for Indigenous people that focuses on healing through restorative justice.
Indigenous Courts are enshrined in the Criminal Code of Canada, meeting Truth and Reconciliation recommendations. People identifying as First Nations, Metis or Inuit who are charged with a crime can choose to attend Indigenous Court if they enter a guilty plea and are prepared to make changes in their lives.
“Indigenous Court is not a get-out-of-jail card. People have to be prepared to do the hard work of facing their traumas, and that in itself can be traumatic. Some people just aren’t ready,” she added.
“You must want to heal, be ready to change your life. This is not an easy feat and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Indigenous Courts address an enduring mistrust of the justice system.
“Stop sending my client to jail and start helping her and restoring her to the community where she can make meaningful contributions.”
Many Indigenous people charged with a crime plead guilty to a charge even if they didn’t commit the crime, because they feel the outcome is predetermined.
“Given the history of oppression towards Indigenous people in Canada, many have untrusting relationships with the court,” said Grace Auger, an LAA duty counsel and criminal lawyer practicing at courts in Siksika and Tsuu’tina First Nations.
“First Nations people are open to me because I’m First Nations. The trust is there,” says Auger. “The biggest obstacle for them is fear.”
One example is a client of Buffalo’s who has been in and out of custody since the age of 12 – and now wants to plead guilty to a crime she didn’t commit because she doesn’t trust traditional courts.
By helping the clients like this address the factors that brought them to court in the first place, such as trauma, addiction and poverty, and by considering alternatives to incarceration, Indigenous Courts can reduce recidivism and address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons.
“Stop sending my client to jail and start helping her and restoring her to the community where she can make meaningful contributions,” Buffalo said.
“When you walk into Indigenous Court, nobody is looking down on you.”
A Government of Canada study reports that although Indigenous adults represent only about three per cent of the adult population in Canada, they account for 26 per cent of inmates in provincial and territorial prisons. Among Indigenous women, that figure rises to 38 per cent.
But Auger observes that Indigenous Courts are providing a new approach where building trust is possible.
Even the courtrooms look different.
“When you walk into Indigenous Court, nobody is looking down on you,” Auger said. “Everyone sits around a table on the same level, and you see Indigenous faces throughout. This goes a long way to build trust.”
Indigenous court has the means to meet the unique needs and circumstances of Indigenous people.
“Our justice system would be more equitable if there were more specialized courts like this,” said Stephen Shirt, an LAA Indigenous Court navigator and assessment officer.
Indigenous People and the Law: A Guide to Restorative Justice and Indigenous Courts will be hosted by Buffalo, Auger and Shirt June 24 from 12 noon to 1 p.m. Registration is now open to the public.
About Legal Aid Alberta
Legal Aid Alberta is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal representation and support for Albertans facing legal issues.
LAA provides legal services to clients in support of fairness in Alberta’s justice system – services that help ensure Albertans in all circumstances can understand and defend their legal rights.