CBU professor proposes separate legal system for Indigenous people

A Mi'kmaw lawyer and educator is calling for research into creating a system of justice that incorporates the ancient laws of the tribes of the Maritimes and Maine, an area known as Wabanaki.

Justice system needs to incorporate Indigenous laws, says Tuma Young

Tuma Young (left) is on the faculty of Cape Breton University. (CBU.ca)

A Mi'kmaw lawyer and educator is calling for research into creating a system of justice that incorporates the ancient laws of the tribes of the Maritimes and Maine, an area known as Wabanaki.

Tuma Young teaches Indigenous studies at Cape Breton University and is a PhD candidate in law at the University of Arizona.

He told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton that many Indigenous people were upset at the not guilty verdict in the recent second-degree murder trial of a man accused of killing Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man from Saskatchewan.

Young said 40 years of research, inquiries and reports have come to the conclusion that some parts of the justice system do not work for Indigenous people.

"They don't really incorporate Indigenous laws or Mi'kmaq laws into the whole fabric," he said.

Young said with the prime minister and the justice minister both promising legal reforms in the wake of the Boushie case, now is the time to talk about creating an entirely new system of justice for Indigenous people.

He has proposed to set something up called the Wabanaki Institute of Laws, which would look at the laws of the Wabanaki people, such as the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot.

'Weave them as one'

Young used the metaphor of a sweetgrass braid to illustrate how he sees an Indigenous-centred legal system working.

One strand would be Canadian law, another strand would be international law and the third strand would be the ancient laws encoded in the songs and stories of Indigenous peoples.

"And we weave them as one strand into the administration of justice or the structure of justice in Canada as we know it,"  said Young.

Wabanaki laws are embedded in language, history

The institute would conduct research into where the old laws are "located," said Young.

"Often, that's one of the most difficult points for non-Indigenous people, non-Wabanaki people, to say, 'Well, what are your laws and where are they located? Are they in a statute form or in a code somewhere?'

"Well, they're in a form, but they're embedded in the language, the stories, the ceremonies and the history."

Young rejected the notion that a separate system of justice for Indigenous people would create a two-tiered legal system in Canada.

He pointed to the military having its own judicial system, as well as professional boards that deal with complaints against people in those professions, such as doctors and lawyers.

Young has already made presentations to interested parties, including the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society.

He said the next steps for setting up an institute would include finding funding and establishing a location for it, although he'd like to see it housed at Cape Breton University.

About the Author

Peggy MacDonald

Reporter/editor

Peggy MacDonald has been a reporter and editor with CBC Cape Breton for 18 years. She also serves as assignment editor. With a background in both print and radio, Peggy now primarily works in the digital world.

with files from Information Morning Cape Breton