It’s usually a space for students to gather socially or to study, but for one morning the Aboriginal Learning Centre at Ottawa’s Rideau High School became a makeshift courtroom for a mock trial.
Students from Rideau and nearby Queen Elizabeth Public School played lawyers, court security and even the role of the accused.
“It’s fun,” said 13-year-old Grade 8 student Santana McCumber. “You get to see what other people do for a living.”
“In essence the program seeks to positively transform the way aboriginal youth perceive and engage with the justice system,” said executive director Brittany Twiss. “So it's a program focused on justice education, empowerment, and mentorship.”
Provincial court justice Hugh Fraser presided over the mock drug trafficking trial at the high school.
Launched in Toronto in 2012 in partnership with the Ontario Justice Education Network, Dare to Dream has since expanded to schools across Canada. Local Indigenous lawyers and law students came on board to help create a hands-on learning experience for youth in Ottawa.
It's important work, law student says
Law student Ashley King calls it important work.
“We have high incarceration rates, unfortunately,” said King, who’s Anishinaabe and in her first year of law school at the University of Ottawa.
“A lot of our youth are in the criminal justice system. So I feel like it's really important, especially engaging with aboriginal youth not to only know what their rights are, but as well maybe seeing the court system in a positive light,” she said.
On top of the mock trials, Dare to Dream also takes students on field trips to the court house, high-profile law firms and law schools. The experience has inspired Grade 7 student Brady Butler to consider a career as a lawyer.
“You get to defend people, and do different stuff, and meet different people,” said 12-year-old Butler.
Canadian Lawyers Abroad points to justice statistics that show that in Ontario, despite making up only 2.9 per cent of their demographic, aboriginal boys aged 12-17 make up almost 15 per cent of male admissions to penal youth facilities.
The hope with Dare to Dream is to inspire young people to increase aboriginal representation on the other side of the justice system, in areas like criminal law, law enforcement, and legal administration.
The mock trial was eye-opening for 12-year-old Storm Besau.
“There's not too many other kids that get to do this,” he said, adding that he's also thinking about pursuing a legal career.
King finds that attitude especially inspiring. “It feels really rewarding to actually see the youth be interested in it. Because it gives me hope that maybe...perhaps this is something they'll pursue later on,” said King.
The students will reconvene in a month for a simulated aboriginal sentencing circle after a partial guilty verdict was found during the mock trial.