All-Indigenous jury for James Smith Cree Nation inquests 1 of many needed reforms, says veteran lawyer

An all-Indigenous jury for the inquests into the recent stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan is a positive step, but many other justice reforms are urgently needed, says veteran lawyer Donald Worme.

Saskatchewan's chief coroner wants juries reviewing stabbing rampage to be all Indigenous people

Saskatoon lawyer Donald Worme says true justice for Indigenous people means much more than adding Indigenous jurors or police. It will require a complete overhaul of power structures, cultures and attitudes. (Jason Warick/CBC)

An all-Indigenous jury for the inquests into the recent stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan is a positive step, but many other justice reforms are urgently needed, says veteran Saskatoon lawyer Donald Worme.

Worme, the former counsel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has participated in dozens of inquests, including examining the freezing deaths of several Indigenous men in and around Saskatoon that implicated police more than 20 years ago.

Saskatchewan's chief coroner, Clive Weighill, announced inquests into the deaths of 12 people in relation to the recent rampage, including the main suspect Myles Sanderson. Weighill said he'd like to see exclusively Indigenous juries for the inquests, likely to take place next year.

Worme welcomed the announcement, but said the justice system overall remains racist at every level. He said justice requires more than Indigenous jurors or police forces — it requires fundamental change of the power structures, the methods and the intent of the justice system.

CBC reporter Jason Warick spoke with Worme Thursday afternoon at his Saskatoon office, which sits on one of Canada's first urban reserves.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On chief coroner Clive Weighill saying he'd like to see all-Indigenous juries for the James Smith Cree Nation inquests:

Worme: Well, I think Coroner Weighill was merely stating the circumstances of the law that presently exist and have existed in this province for a very long time. That is that a jury should be selected from the community that bears the impact of the events that are to be examined. It should be a jury of of your peers.

That he even has to mention this I think really underscores the fact that the law has not been applied fairly. 

Look at virtually any jury trial matter where there is a non-Indigenous accused and an Indigenous victim, such as the [Gerald] Stanley case. Every individual that was potentially Indigenous — all it took was to be browner than the next guy  — and you were off the jury.

What does that tell you? I think it tells us that Lady Justice is not blind, at least as far as it applies to Indigenous people.

I think it's troubling that we even have to have this discussion.

A composite photo of ten people.
An inquest will be held next year for the James Smith Cree Nation stabbing victims: top row (L-R) Thomas Burns, Carol Burns, Gregory Burns, Lydia Gloria Burns and Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns. Bottom row (L-R): Lana Head, Christian Head, Robert Sanderson, Wesley Petterson and Earl Burns Sr. It will include one-time suspect Damien Sanderson. The main suspect, Myles Sanderson, will be the subject of a separate inquest. (Saskatchewan RCMP, Sask First Nations Veterans Association/Facebook)

On racism in the justice system:

Issues of race infect the justice system in its entirety. This is not a secret. The courts have recognized this. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized this.

These stereotypes that are applied against Indigenous people continue to harm Indigenous communities. Why is it that objectivity is the sole province of white people? Look at the comments that followed the appointment of of Madam Justice Michelle O'Bonsawin, who went to the Supreme Court of Canada just last month.

Comments were "Oh, she better not sit on any Indigenous cases." Why? Is she biased But that is not turned the other way [for white judges].

On Indigenous-led reforms:

For the last 35 years of my career — and there have been many before me — there have been calls for an Indigenous justice system.

The proposal of Coroner Weighill for Indigenous jurors is not a fix for the problem. It ignores the fact that it ought to be an Indigenous process all the way through. Would it be any different? Well, I don't know because we've never been given that opportunity.

I submit that it would be different because of the principles of restorative justice that we talk about when we contemplate what a justice system might might look like.

It takes the catastrophic events that occurred [at James Smith Cree Nation] to even have a discussion about Indigenous policing.

We have the answers in our community. We have the people in our community that have held on to these principles and are able to make realistic changes in our communities.

On the urgency of changes:

Indigenous people aren't going to sit around. We cannot wait. We do not have the luxury of time any longer and these events will not stop occurring.

Indigenous jurors alone are not going to solve the problem.

I'm troubled that that my new grandchild will inherit this system and that I have not been able to make the kinds of changes that our communities need.

Even as a lawyer, I'm still mistaken for the accused.

Even now, I temper what I say because I don't want to be hemmed in by those stereotypes. I don't want to be the angry Indian.

Do I want to be optimistic? Absolutely. But it is troubling and it is extremely frustrating, trying to just move things a little bit.

The system was created for white people. It was created to oppress Indigenous people, to remove us from our land and resources. There's no doubt about it.

The institutions that have been complicit in that, they still carry on and they're still bound with the same holdover stereotypical thinking from the 18th century.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.