Retired Crown calls for overhaul of Quebec justice system to better serve Indigenous communities

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée cites the appointment of the first Indigenous judge in Quebec as one of her political accomplishments but admits the province must do more to recruit Aboriginal people to work in the justice system. A retired prosecutor says Quebec must go farther still.

Justice minister proud to have appointed Quebec's 1st Indigenous judge but admits province must do more

Retired Crown prosecutor Pierre Rousseau says although the Quebec Justice Ministry's new measures to make inroads with Indigenous communities are promising, justice will never fully be served if the legal system doesn't undergo more radical changes. (CBC)

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée cites the appointment of the first Indigenous judge in Quebec as one of her political accomplishments.

But in a province where more than 182,000 people identify as Aboriginal, Judge Mark Philippe, who sits on the bench of the Quebec court in Gatineau, is the only one who is Indigenous. There is also one Indigenous Crown prosecutor.

With the Viens commission underway, examining ways of improving government services for Indigenous citizens — and with mounting calls for judicial reforms in light of not-guilty verdicts in two recent high-profile murder cases elsewhere in Canada — Vallée knows the province must do better.

"We have to recruit," said Vallée.

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée acknowledges more must be done to recruit Indigenous people to work in Quebec's justice system. (CBC)

Retired prosecutor: 'Legal system a failure'

Quebec's Justice Ministry has already adopted alternative measures such as piloting Community Justice Committees in seven Indigenous communities, and Vallée is looking into creating two posts for permanent judges in northern Quebec.

A retired Crown prosecutor who spent years in the north say those initiatives are a promising start but says justice will never fully be served if the legal system doesn't undergo more radical changes.

"It's not by tinkering with it that you will find that it's going to work," said Pierre Rousseau, who travelled from Sooke, B.C., to appear before the Viens commission in Val-d'Or last month.

Rousseau worked with Cree and Inuit communities in northern Quebec in the late 1980s.

At the time, he says, he thought he was helping people make their way through the court system. But he later realized he was reinforcing mainstream ways that were alien to those communities.

He found that Quebec court workers, with the exception of lawyers in Kuujjuaq, had little knowledge of the communities they were serving.

Rousseau later worked in the Northwest Territories and found more emphasis there on meeting the needs of Aboriginal people caught up in the judicial system.  There were, for example, more interpreters to help victims and the accused understand court proceedings.

However, he says little has changed for Indigenous people, as evidenced by incarceration rates.
Pierre Rousseau tesified before the Viens commission on Jan. 25, 2018. He said little has changed for Indigenous people in the court system since the late 1980s, when he worked in Cree and Inuit communities in northern Quebec. (CBC)

'Decolonization necessary for reconciliation'

Indigenous men represent 25.2 per cent of all men in custody in Canada, while Indigenous women represent 36.1 per cent of all women behind bars, according to a 2016 report.

By comparison, census data from that year shows that five per cent of Canadians are Indigenous.

Rousseau says since 1988, various jurisdictions across Canada have produced more than half a dozen reports and commissions which show the many ways that the criminal justice system is failing Indigenous people.

"The court system is foreign. It is not something that matches their culture," he said.
This study, Justice for and by the Aboriginals, was published by the Quebec government in 1995. It is one of more than half a dozen reports undertaken in various jurisdictions across Canada in the past 30 years which showcase how the criminal justice system is failing Indigenous people. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

He said the adversarial nature of the justice system runs against the focus of Indigenous cultures, which is on restoring relationships.

"They are trying to restore peace, but the system is dividing people again," said Rousseau.

Rousseau told the Viens commission that Indigenous communities must be allowed to develop their own system with their own legal traditions.

He said unless that happens, simply adding more judges to the roster in northern Quebec won't change anything.

"Decolonization is necessary for reconciliation, and more judges and more of the same courts is anything but decolonization," he said.

Rousseau believes things get more complicated in cases like the trial of white farmer Gerald Stanley, who was charged and acquitted in the death of an Aboriginal man, Colton Boushie, in Saskatchewan.

In such cases, Rousseau believes a hybrid system could work, and he says it's been done in countries such as Greenland, where legal systems incorporate Indigenous traditions.