Indigenous groups taking lead on Manitoba court worker program

Four advocacy groups in Manitoba are taking the lead on a provincial government program that helps Indigenous people navigating the justice system.

Indigenous Court Worker program 'starved for staff with no promise of long-term funding': NDP justice critic

The Manitoba Law Courts building in Winnipeg. The province is handing over the reins of the Indigenous Court Worker Program to four Indigenous organizations. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Four Indigenous groups in Manitoba will take the lead on a provincial government program that helps Indigenous people navigating the justice system, the province's justice minister announced Tuesday.

Cameron Friesen says the province will give annual grants of more than $1 million a year for two years to support the transition of the Indigenous Court Worker Program to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Southern Chiefs' Organization and the Island Lake Tribal Council.

The program works to ensure there are Indigenous court workers to provide culturally appropriate support and help Indigenous people navigate the courts system and connect with resources. The court workers go to court with their clients, providing support to them and their families in the person's language.

Friesen says the transition for the program is a step toward reconciliation.

"Shifting these resources to rights holder organizations who work directly with communities will ensure greater access to this valuable resource for Indigenous people who come in contact with the criminal justice system," he said in a release on Tuesday.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee says he's looking forward to having a hand in the program.

"The transition of the Indigenous court worker program to Indigenous organizations will greatly improve cultural safety for our citizens, their families, and their communities," he said in the release.

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization says Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and face racism, neglect, violence and other forms of abuse.

He hopes the new leadership of the program will help "forge a new path forward based on mutual respect and a recognition of the need for Indigenous-led justice services and programs."

Long-term commitment needed: NDP

But Manitoba NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine says she's worried the Progressive Conservative government isn't serious about the long-term survival of the court worker program.

"It's a good thing for our people to be able to have control over the administration of the Indigenous court worker program, but it comes right now as it exists at a cost," she said in an interview with CBC.

She accused the government of passing off a program "starved for staff with no promise of long-term funding."

If the government is serious about reconciliation, it needs to ensure there is funding for a court worker in every community in Manitoba, she said.

"There's phenomenal people within the Indigenous worker program, fluent in the languages, committed to their community, committed to the folks that they work with," Fontaine said. "I'm worried that they're being set up to fail."

Friesen, though, said shifting the resources into the hands of the Indigenous communities will "maximize the benefits of the program" and says the province is grateful to the partner organizations that will now take over operations for the program.