A Winnipeg lawyer is pleased that the judge heading an inquest into the death of an indigenous man shot by police in 2008 has agreed to examine whether systemic racism was a factor in his death.

26-year-old Craig McDougall was shot eight years ago by officers who responded to a disturbance at a house on Simcoe Street, in the city's West End. Police said he refused repeated demands to drop a knife.

In an inquest hearing on Thursday, Judge Anne Krahn said she would hear evidence on systemic racism: what it is, its role in the justice system and how it could have been at play the night McDougall died, said Corey Shefman, the lawyer for McDougall's family.

"English was Craig McDougall's second language. So when police were shouting for him to stop and to drop the knife that they saw him holding, they were doing it in English. And there may be some questions as to whether he understood them," said Corey Shefman, a lawyer representing McDougall's family.

Language may have been factor 

McDougall and his family had been living in Winnipeg for only a few months before he died, said Shefman. After his death, the family moved back to their home community of Wasagamack First Nation, about 600 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

Craig McDougall

Craig McDougall was killed in August 2008 by officers who responded to a disturbance call at a house on Simcoe Street. Police said he refused repeated demands to drop a knife.

"The question is if he had been in Wasagamack and dealing with band constables, they may have tried to talk to him, they may have taken a more non-confrontational approach," he added.

He said the inquest is not about assigning blame, rather, it's about getting answers for the family and general public about what happened in hopes of preventing similar deaths.

"We're not saying police officers were racist. We're not saying they were shouting racial slurs or engaged in any sort of direct racism. What we're saying is that the structures, the systems, the policies and procedures that are in place are designed in such a way that they don't take into account racial differences and factors which can treat people of different ethnic backgrounds differently," Shefman said.

Racism an 'accepted fact'

The inquest will specifically examine how force should be used by police when dealing with the public, and which can be subject to the "personal stories" officers bring to the situation, said Shefman. He said the inquest is also an opportunity to address a long-standing problem in Canada.

"We have a racism problem in our justice system. It's not even a topic for discussion. It's simply an accepted fact that indigenous people in the Canadian justice system are at a disadvantage," he said.

Examples of systemic racism include an officer's perceptions of the inner city being more dangerous than other parts of the city, and the resulting treatment of people they encounter, said Shefman.

"There is absolutely differential treatment by the police to indigenous people, and we see that. They don't have the same level of trust with police, that people who look like I do. And that's one of the goals of this proceeding. We want to give the community a reason to trust them again."

He said McDougall's family is still struggling without the answers that will help bring closure. 

"The family wants to make sure that Craig's death means something. They want to make sure that Craig's death has an impact and can contribute to reducing the likelihood of future similar deaths."

'A long time to wait for justice'

The inquest will also address the length of time it has taken from the time of McDougall's death eight years ago to the inquest being called five years later but only getting underway this summer. 

"That's a long time for a family to wait for justice, for answers. Thankfully the system, the judge, and all of the participants in this inquest, including the judge, have acknowledged that that's a real problem."

The inquest is scheduled for August, but as a result of the judge hearing more evidence, Shefman believes it will now take longer than the anticipated three weeks.

"Canada has a long history of colonialism and racism against indigenous people. This is not news. The TRC spoke about it, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry spoke about it. What is news is we're trying to do something about it."