Shameful backlash to lawyers' Indigenous culture course shows why we need it
Ignorance is inexcusable. Lawyers must confront inequities in the legal system
This column is an opinion from defence lawyer Daniel Song. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Several Alberta lawyers have publicly questioned the existence of systemic discrimination against Indigenous people in Canada. As a member of the legal profession, I am ashamed of their public statements.
The petitioners to the Law Society of Alberta characterize their challenge to a mandatory Indigenous course in largely neutral terms; their wish is to eliminate the rule enabling mandatory education. However, the heart of the motion is unquestionably a direct attack on the Law Society's Indigenous cultural competency course called "The Path," as revealed by the petitioners' comments in a CBC article.
I offer no opinion on the Law Society's power to mandate training and education. Any honest debate about the scope of the Law Society's authority should be welcomed by a profession that prides itself in embracing independence, autonomy, and democratic values.
What is not up for debate, however, is the history of disadvantage that Indigenous people in this country have endured for centuries.
Some petitioners declare they do not believe Canadian justice has a history of systemic discrimination. One described the Law Society's mandated course on Indigenous cultural competency as "political indoctrination" into "a brand of wokeness called decolonization."
These lawyers had the privilege of receiving a post-secondary legal education in Canada. Having benefited from higher education at accredited law schools, lawyers should be educating the public about the inequities engendered by our legal institutions.
The assertion that Canada has no history of systemic discrimination and that "The Path" is an insipid offshoot of "wokeness," ranks with the belief that the Holocaust was imaginary, that cigarettes do not cause cancer, and that no one landed on the moon.
These petitioners' public statements are embarrassingly irresponsible and inexcusably ignorant.
Systemic discrimination against Indigenous people in Canada is a fact. Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the Canadian population; yet they comprise more than 30 per cent of the inmate population in federal prisons.
Unless we harbour the indefensible belief that Indigenous people are born with a chromosome for criminality, then we must accept that the overincarceration of Indigenous people is a product of systemic bias.
Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada has impelled lower courts to take "judicial notice" of the fact that our history of colonialism and displacement has translated into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, and higher rates of substance abuse and violence for Indigenous people.
Courts take "judicial notice" of facts (without the need for further evidence) when those facts are "(1) so notorious or generally accepted as not to be the subject of debate among reasonable persons, or (2) capable of immediate and accurate demonstration by resort to readily accessible sources of indisputable accuracy."
Are these legally trained individuals seriously saying that they will close their eyes and thumb their noses at the Supreme Court and the rule of law?
Slow to embrace change
Indigenous communities do not deserve this assault on their dignity. As lawyers, we have the responsibility to advocate for those who cannot always fend for themselves.
Indigenous people are often the most vulnerable individuals paraded through our courts. We cannot allow this myopic petition to become emblematic of the legal profession's reputation of being slow to embrace change.
But I am confident that a large majority of my colleagues will resoundingly vote down this petition — because the petitioners' public statements underscore the need for the Law Society of Alberta to mandate culturally sensitive training for these very lawyers.
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