Justice system in 'crisis' for Ontario First Nations
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:05AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:39PM EST
TORONTO -- Ontario's First Nations face a justice and jury system in a state of crisis that requires urgent action, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci reported Tuesday.
In a strong indictment of the current setup, Iacobucci warned the issue threatens relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
"There is not only the problem of a lack of representation of First Nations peoples on juries that is of serious proportion," his report states.
"It is also regrettably the fact that the justice system generally as applied to First Nations peoples, particularly in the north, is quite frankly in a crisis."
In August 2011, the Ontario government asked the former justice to investigate after inquests and criminal trials ground to a halt over the lack of on-reserve aboriginals on juries.
In his research, Iacobucci said he found a state of conflict between the justice system and the ideologies and approach of First Nations peoples.
Aboriginals experience "systemic discrimination" when it comes to criminal justice or child services and the courts, he said.
The jurist acknowledged his mandate did not extend to delving into the larger justice system or aboriginal socio-economic conditions, but said it would be folly to ignore the backdrop.
While aboriginals are over-represented in prisons, their under-representation on juries extends to every facet of the justice system that has alienated First Nations, he said.
"Access to justice, the administration of justice, the availability and quality of legal services, the treatment of First Nations peoples in the justice system all are wanting in northern Ontario," Iacobucci said in Thunder Bay, Ont.
In all, Iacobucci's report makes 17 recommendations he says are aimed at ensuring the cultural values, traditional laws and ideologies of First Nations are better reflected in the justice system.
- Setting up a group to advise the attorney general on First Nations and justice issues;
- Giving cultural training to officials in the justice system in contact with aboriginals;
- Looking at using existing databases, such as health records, for finding on-reserve residents for jury rolls;
- Allowing reserve residents to volunteer for jury duty.
Iacobucci called his recommendations straightforward and inexpensive to implement.
"Doing nothing will be a profound shame especially when there has been a greater recognition throughout Canada of the tragic history of aboriginal people."
Iacobucci said First Nations want more control of community justice issues, and want to be involved in improving their representation on juries.
Ontario Attorney General John Gerretsen said the government planned to act quickly.
"We will form an implementation committee that includes representatives from the First Nations community and from various government ministries," Gerretsen said.
He also said he would set up the recommended advisory group.
First Nations leaders called the report an important first step in dealing with a long festering issue.
"Justice Iacobucci has told the truth about how the justice system treats First Nations people," said Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
"He has called on the Ontario government to move urgently, and we agree with this assessment."
Among other things, Iacobucci's report finds on-reserve residents make up one-third of people in the district of Kenora, but typically comprise under 10 per cent of the jury roll.
Similarly, on-reserve residents account for about five per cent of the population in the Thunder Bay area but make up only 1.3 per cent of jury roll.
Many aboriginals are "plainly reluctant" to participate in juries because of larger conflicts with the justice system, Iacobucci said.
Even the wording of the jury questionnaire, he noted, is seen by First Nations as coercive and threatening.
The province, which argues it has made best efforts at inclusiveness, needs to look beyond doing the bare minimum to ensure aboriginal representation on juries, he said.