A Halifax social worker says cultural assessments are an important step in reducing systemic racism in Nova Scotia's justice system — but that assessments alone won't address all the issues facing provincial courts.

Increasing the numbers of African Nova Scotian and Aboriginal lawyers and judges in Nova Scotia could have an even more significant effect, Robert Wright said.

On Tuesday, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge delayed the sentencing Kale Leonard Gabriel, convicted of second-degree murder, to allow time for a cultural assessment.

Gabriel was found guilty in February of fatally shooting Ryan White in Halifax in 2010.

Impact of systemic racism

The cultural assessment will examine whether Gabriel's experiences as an African Nova Scotian are a factor in the crime, and what an appropriate sentence might be, given that social and cultural history.

Wright said cultural assessments are something advocates have been calling for for a long time.

Robert Wright, social worker

In 2014, Halifax social worker Robert Wright wrote the cultural assessment for an African Nova Scotian youth who had been convicted of attempted murder. (Submitted by Robert Wright)

Nova Scotia judges regularly request Gladue reports, which encourage judges to be sensitive to the systemic racism faced by Aboriginal people, and to consider alternatives other than incarceration when sentencing.

Wright said judges in the province are starting to recognize the need for similar procedures when sentencing African Nova Scotians.

"There is systemic racism in the justice system that disproportionately polices, charges, convicts and makes for differential experience in custody for Aboriginal and black peoples, and judges need to understand that."

Need for cultural assessments

Statistics from Nova Scotia's Justice Department also show that despite making up between two and four per cent of the population, African Nova Scotian and Aboriginal individuals make up between seven and 16 per cent of prison inmates, depending on age and type of custody.

Just when the critical mass of black and indigenous lawyers are there to start this change, for the province to change the rule - Robert Wright

Gabriel's trial is not the only case in which a cultural assessment has been requested in Nova Scotia. In 2014, Wright himself wrote the cultural assessment for an African Nova Scotian youth who had been convicted of attempted murder.

At that time,Wright said, the judge had three assessments available to them — a psychiatric report, an psychological report, and a psycho-education report — but none of them specifically considered race and culture.

The cultural assessment Wright prepared outlined the effect of community displacement, economic inequality, the exclusion of African Nova Scotians from education opportunities and the strategic recruitment of African Nova Scotians into a criminal subculture.

Progress overshadowed

Wright said the fact that assessments continue to be requested is a sign that improvements are being made.

But he said this progress has been overshadowed by changes to provincial policies that affect other aspects of the justice system.

The number of African Nova Scotian and Aboriginal lawyers in the province have risen significantly since Dalhousie introduced the Indigenous Black and Mi'kmaq program at the law school in 1989.

But Wright, who has worked on the issue of judicial diversity for nearly two decades, said that in 2009, when many of those lawyers had practiced long enough to meet the five-year threshold of experience required for judicial eligibility, that threshold was increased to 15 years.

Racist effect

"Just when the critical mass of black and indigenous lawyers are there to start this change, for the province to change the rule — if it wasn't intentionally racist, it certainly has had that effect."

Wright said that addressing the effect of systemic racism on Canadian society means acknowledging how that same racism influences the justice system.

"The only way we are going to get that rich understanding of the diversity of Canada in judgements, is if we have a rich diversity of judges on the bench."