It's time for the Ontario government to "get on with it" when it comes to implementing long-awaited recommendations on First Nations juries in Ontario, retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci says.
A long-awaited report released Tuesday that examines a lack of First Nations representation on juries in Ontario makes 17 sweeping recommendations — not just about First Nations jury representation but about justice as a whole.
Iacobucci, who was asked a year and a half ago to investigate why so few jurors were members of First Nations communities, said a lack of jury representation is a symptom of bigger justice issues for aboriginal people.
"If the justice system continues to fail First Nations, they will continue to be reticent to participate on juries," he told a Tuesday morning news conference to unveil the report in Thunder Bay.
"The time for lofty words and speeches is over. It's time for urgent, substantive and meaningful change."
Iacobucci called on the Ontario government to implement report recommendations promptly, as First Nations people are all too familiar with reports that sit on shelves.
He also called for the creation of an assistant deputy attorney general position that would be responsible for aboriginal justice issues.
Iacobucci's other recommendations range from better data collection for jury rolls to cultural training for police, court workers and prison guards.
A copy of the report follows at the end of this story.
The recommendations can’t come soon enough for Marlene Pierre, a member of the Fort William First Nation.
Five years ago, Pierre’s 27-year-old grandson, Jacy Pierre, died at the Thunder Bay District Jail.
An inquest into his death was stayed because there was no aboriginal representation on the jury.
"My daughter and I, we left. We walked out of the inquest," said Pierre.
A new inquest into Jacy Pierre’s death is expected to start sometime this year and Pierre wants to make sure First Nations people are on the jury.
"We feel that a terrible injustice is being done to aboriginal people," said Pierre. "And if we can have some impact on that, then fine."
Lack of credibility
Concern about First Nations representation on juries also arose during inquests into the deaths of First Nations students in Thunder Bay.
The Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, said the justice system is failing aboriginal communities.
"I think it's very important that a representative from one of our communities be there ... in order for the families... to see it as a credible process," said Alvin Fiddler.
The lack of aboriginal representation also means that First Nations people charged with crimes are denied their right to be heard by a jury of their peers, added Fiddler.
"If you go to trial, you're to be tried by [a] jury of your peers. And I think for many of our community members … if they go to trial and it's a jury trial, chances are they won't see a member of their community as part of that jury."
Fiddler said he hopes the recommendations Iacobucci puts forward will change that.
'Delivery of justice in a culturally relevant manner'
In his report, Iacobucci said that during his meetings with First Nations people from 32 communities, "one point was resoundingly clear: substantive and systemic changes to the criminal justice system are necessary conditions for the participation of First Nations people on juries in Ontario."
He noted that First Nations leaders "were unequivocal that reintroducing restorative justice programs would have multiple benefits at the community level. Such benefits include the delivery of justice in a culturally relevant manner, greater understanding of justice at the community level ... and an opportunity to educate people about the justice system and their responsibility to become engaged on the juries when called upon to do so."
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Harvey Yesno responded to the report by thanking Iacobucci for "his hard work and dedication."
"He invested quality time to ensure there was inclusion of our communities through this process, which will go a long way in restoring confidence in the justice system."
Following the report's release, Attorney General John Gerretsen issued a statement saying he would be reaching out to his "counterparts across government and to First Nations leadership to discuss the important issues raised in this report and to begin the work that is needed to address them."
Gerretsen said he would immediately work to address what he called the top two recommendations:
"We will form an implementation committee that includes the First Nations community... [to] consider the report's recommendations and how they might be implemented."
He added a provincial advisory group will be set up to provide advice to the Attorney General on matters relating to First Nations and the justice system.