Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services is calling for more justice workers in the northwest.

The law requires courts to consider special circumstances when sentencing Aboriginal offenders, but there are no workers to do the research on what are called Gladue reports.

The head of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services said she considers the situation a crisis.

Celina Reitberger said Gladue workers document the factors in an Aboriginal person's life that may have contributed to their committing a crime.

Celina Reitberger

Celina Reitberger, head of Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services says she considers the lack of Gladue writers across the north to be a crisis. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

There are seven dedicated Gladue courts in southern Ontario, but there's only a single Gladue worker in Thunder Bay, who works out of the Indian Friendship Centre. That person is currently on leave, and the centre is scrambling to find a temporary replacement. 

No other Gladue workers exist in the rest of northwestern Ontario.

"The bulk of the Aboriginal people who are being jailed are in this area and this is an area the size of France and we need help,” Reitberger said.

Earlier this year, retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci said the province's justice system has failed First Nations people.

He said it's disappointing to hear there aren't adequate resources for producing Gladue reports.

"These are all ... important parts of making sure we are doing the right thing in our justice system,” he said.

Can lawyers, probation officers fill in the gap?

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Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services is asking Legal Aid Ontario to fund three Gladue workers to cover Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory. 

Bernice Dubec, executive director of the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre, said her organization has repeatedly told the Ministry of the Attorney General that more Gladue workers are needed, but the response has always been that there is no money available. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of the Attorney General said other professionals can also present Gladue information to the courts.

Probation officers include Gladue factors in their pre-sentence reports, and defence lawyers include them in their submissions to the court.  

However, Reitberger said that reporting Gladue factors properly requires someone to build trust with the offender, and go into detail about their background and difficult circumstances in their life.

Defence lawyers don't have the time to accomplish that, she said.

Reitberger added it is "naive" to think the offender will "open up about the darkest corners of their lives" with a probation officer, both because most probation officers are not Aboriginal and because they have the authority to submit information that could send the offender to jail.