The lack of First Nations representation on juries is the focus of a youth forum that kicked off Tuesday in Thunder Bay.
About 100 aboriginal young people from across Ontario are taking part in the three-day event.
Talon Firebird of Whitefish Bay First Nation says the forum incorporates aboriginal culture in its agenda.
“Most conferences the kids get the end of the stick,” the conference leader said.
“Now we are trying to incorporate fun and traditional medicines and traditional teachings within our forum to help the kids to stay positive, stay connected, and to get them to learn as much as they can so they can bring it back and empower other people in their communities.”
The forum is being held at the request of the Ontario Juries Review Implementation Committee.
Participants will share their experiences and ideas for improving representation on juries, and propose solutions to address barriers in the judicial system.
"My interest in Feathers of Hope is to empower young people and spread education,” Firebird continued.
This particular forum will provide education about the Canadian justice system.
“The importance of bridging a connection between aboriginal leadership and the Canadian justice system is imperative,” he said.
“We need our aboriginal people to work together, not only to make aboriginal life better, but Canadian life itself. I hope the young people feel empowered and strengthened [by the forum]. And I hope we see some leaders come out of this."
Amplifying young peoples' voices
People like Firebird and fellow-leader Samantha Crowe are called “youth-amplifiers.”
"Being a youth-amplifier, we amplify the voices of the young people,” said Crowe, who hails from the Lake Helen First Nation.
'There needs to be a community-anchored justice system that fits culturally for young people...' - Samantha Crowe, Lake Helen First Nation
“Our job and our responsibility is making sure we give a platform for young people, for their voices to be heard. This is a position, so we take it very seriously. And it's very near and dear to my heart."
The roughly 100 youth come from the northern territories known as Treaty 3, Robinson Superior, Treaty 9 and Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, as well as some southern Ontario territories.
"There needs to be a community-anchored justice system that fits culturally for young people in order for perceptions to change and for all community members to live a better life and in safer communities," Crowe added.
The forum comes at a time when the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing arguments in the case of Clifford Kokopenace, a First Nations individual who had his manslaughter conviction overturned due to inadequate representation of First Nations on the jury.
The Supreme Court will examine the broader issue of First Nations representation on juries and what constitutes reasonable efforts by the state to ensure equitable representation. The ruling is expected in early 2015.
Taking a closer look
According to a news release from the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, it is estimated that as many as 18 Coroner's Inquests are stalled due to low numbers of First Nations individuals serving on juries. These inquests include the deaths of seven First Nations teens from Thunder Bay.
In 2013, the Honourable Frank Iacobucci, former Supreme Court Justice, released his independent review on First Nations representation on Ontario juries. The report identified a number of systemic, discriminating barriers prohibiting First Nations individuals from participating on jury pools including an overall negative perception of the justice system by First Nations people and an intimidating and discriminating jury recruitment process.
One of Iacobucci's recommendations called for the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth to convene a forum and engage youth in this issue.
"With more than 180,000 individuals summoned every year for jury duty in Ontario, we must take a closer look at the reasons why First Nations individuals are not being represented on juries," said provincial advocate Irwin Elman.
"If we are going to get this issue right, then we need to hear from those who are currently being excluded by the system, in particular the younger people whose futures will be shaped by whatever changes we make."
At the end of the "Feathers of Hope: Justice and Jury" forum, youth will present their proposed solutions to government officials, First Nations leaders, police, legal and other representatives at a "listening table."