New Brunswick

First Nations saddened but not surprised by acquittal in hit-and-run death of Brady Francis

First Nations across Canada are reacting to the acquittal of Maurice Johnson in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis.

Moncton judge found Maurice Johnson not guilty more than 2 years after death of Elsipogtog man

Brady Francis was 22 when he was struck and killed in February of 2018 while waiting for a drive on Saint-Charles South Road. (Brady Francis/Facebook)

First Nations across Canada are reacting to the acquittal of Maurice Johnson in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis.

The 22-year-old man from Elsipogtog First Nation was killed while walking along the Saint-Charles South Road on Feb. 24, 2018.

Maurice Johnson, 57, from Saint-Charles was charged with failing to stop at the scene of an accident that caused a person's death.

Johnson maintained he hit a deer the night Francis died on the roadside north of Elsipogtog First Nation.

In her decision, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Denise LeBlanc said the prosecution was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson struck Francis. The prosecution also failed to convince her, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Johnson left the scene of the collision knowing he had struck a person.

There was sadness and anger when members of the Francis family and the Elsipogtog community learned of his acquittal.

Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock said he was disappointed by the judge's verdict Tuesday morning. (CBC News)

Chief Aaron Sock said he was disappointed with the verdict but not surprised. 

"There's no justice for First Nations people in Canada," he said.

'This is national problem'

Pamela Palmater said she's not surprised by the decision, either.

"Indigenous people tend to be the victim in these cases and have no decision making power," said the Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation.

"So you notice here they are not the judge. There's no Indigenous prosecutors. It wasn't transmitted in their language.

"We've now come to expect that there's going to be not guilty verdicts or charges aren't even filed or cases aren't even investigated. I mean this is a national problem." 

Residents from Elsipogtog shared their grief over LeBlanc's verdict outside the Moncton courthouse on Tuesday. (Jean Philippe Hughes/Radio Canada)

That anger and frustration quickly made its way onto social media. People from across the country responded to the news.

"I am fully and completely aware that I can be killed and there will be no consequence and repercussions because I'm First Nations in Canada," was one comment shared by many.

Little faith in justice system

Nicole O'Byrne, an associate professor with the law faculty at the University of New Brunswick, said First Nations communities have a general mistrust of the system.

What each side had to say about Maurice Johnson being found innocent of Brady Francis's death

2 years ago
Duration 3:20
Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Aaron Sock and defence lawyer Gilles Lemieux share their thoughts after Maurice Johnson is acquitted at his trial in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis

"When you get a verdict like this people, who have been treated very poorly by the system, do not have a whole lot of faith in the processes in place. And I think that's what you're seeing here in this case," said O'Byrne.

"Until we get to that kind of core of what the problems are, we're going to continue to have communities feeling that they're not getting a fair shake by the criminal justice system. That their lives don't matter as much as non-Indigenous lives".

Wayne MacKay, a professor from the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said an exception should have been made to provide translation services for the Francis family during the trial. 

"In this time of focus on reconciliation and establishing a better and a new relationship with our Indigenous people, I think these are the kind of efforts that would allay some of their concerns about whether they get proper respect."

MacKay said another approach would be to set up First Nations liaisons to help during trials or court proceedings.

"There are definitely some courts that do have Indigenous liaison people to deal with these kinds of situations." MacKay said. "That person would have a better understanding of what kinds of things could be done to better make people aware of what was happening and to better understand the process."

Brady Francis's mother, Jessica Perley, wipes away tears after learning Maurice Johnson has been found not guilty in the hit-and-run death of her son. (Jean Philipp Hughes/Radio Canada )

He would also like to see more Indigenous students pursue law as a career. 

"I think it definitely would add to the credibility of the justice system if there were more Indigenous faces within that system, both as lawyers and ultimately as judges as well," he said.

"Obviously, it's understandable that people are wary of the system when they do not see themselves represented in that system."

The Crown has 30 days to decide if it will appeal LeBlanc's decision.

'We want to be part of the justice system'

On Friday afternoon, about 20 members of the Elsipogtog and Esgenoopetitj First Nations gathered on the steps of the Moncton courthouse to ask that the Mi'kmaq flag fly alongside the Canadian, New Brunswick and City of Moncton flags that snapped in the wind outside.

Elsipogtog Coun. Ruth Levi is calling on the provincial and federal governments to meet with Indigenous people to discuss how they can be part of the legal system going forward. (Radio-Canada)

Elsipogtog council member Ruth Levi says it would be a meaningful first step for Indigenous people.

"We want to be part of the justice system," she said. "We want to make change, we want our people represented."

Levi said there needs to be more First Nations people employed at all levels of the legal system and she is asking for a meeting with the federal and provincial governments.

"They should be calling us right now and saying, 'What can we do to fix this? How can we work together? Where can we bring resources in to your First Nation so you can be part of the system and understand what's going on in buildings like these,'" she said gesturing toward the court house.

On Friday, Chief Sock implored everyone involved in the justice system to ask themselves whether they have any biases toward Indigenous people.

"What attitudes they carry about First Nations people that are harmful, that are dehumanizing and those must be changed. Be honest with yourselves — I think we at least deserve that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maeve McFadden

CBC New Brunswick

Maeve McFadden is a producer with Information Morning Moncton. maeve.mcfadden@cbc.ca

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