Ont. murder trial halted for lack of aboriginal jurors

A judge has adjourned a murder trial in Thunder Bay after ruling it was impossible to convene a jury representative of the northern Ontario city's aboriginal population.

'It's kind of a black eye on this region,' defence lawyer says

Thunder Bay's District Court House: A judge has ruled the area's july pool inadequately represents aboriginal people. (Government of Ontario)

A judge has adjourned a murder trial in Thunder Bay after ruling it was impossible to convene a jury representative of the northern Ontario city's aboriginal population.

More than 100 people turned up for jury duty Tuesday, answering the call from the court system. But the judge ruled there weren't enough potential aboriginal jurors. 

Ontario Superior Court Judge Helen Pierce's order puts the second-degree murder trial of Andre Theodore Wareham on hold. The trial is now scheduled for November.

Some First Nations leaders say the viability of the entire justice system in northern Ontario is being called into question.

Defence lawyer Steven Hinkson said he was surprised it has taken so long for this issue to come up.

"I think it's kind of a black eye on this region," he said. "At least in Toronto you can see a greater degree of representation of the community."

Wareham, 33, was to be tried for second-degree murder in the January 2009 death of William Harvey Atkins, who suffered multiple stab wounds, the Chronicle-Journal reported. 

The two lived in the same apartment building. Wareham has said he stabbed Atkins in self-defence after being attacked.

Terry Waboose, deputy grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation, said the delay in the murder trial proves the concerns about aboriginal representation affect the whole justice system. 

"It's very imperative that we rectify the situation, or it's going to slow down the apparatus of justice and how it's administered," he told CBC News.

In a separate case last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered a judicial inquiry into whether the Thunder Bay District’s jury roll properly represents aboriginals, the Chronicle-Journal reported. The ruling stemmed from concerns over two coroner’s inquests into the deaths of aboriginal males in Thunder Bay.

Ontario's attorney general's office says it is studying last week's court ruling but is not a party to the litigation. It insists the ruling is "in regard to a very narrow issue" and should have no effect on criminal courts.

The office says it gets names of potential jurors from the most recent voters lists obtained from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, as well as through direct requests to communities and by holding jury awareness forums.

"The province is committed to working collaboratively with First Nations to improve the participation of First Nations persons living on reserve on Ontario’s jury rolls," the office said in an email to CBC News.

With files from Jody Porter