Restorative justice essential for First Nations, lawyer says

Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services in Thunder Bay hopes Frank Iacobucci's report will lead to more community-based justice programs within First Nations.

Legal service hopes report on First Nations representation on Ontario juries will help

Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services in Thunder Bay hopes the Honourable Frank Iacobucci's report will lead to more community-based justice programs within First Nations.

The former Supreme Court justice said this week that the mainstream legal system is failing Aboriginal people.

A Thunder Bay lawyer who works with Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services said a big part of the solution is to help First Nations deal with criminal behaviour in a way that works for them — something called restorative justice. 

"First Nations people approach conflict and conflict resolution very differently," said Mary Jean Robinson.

Robinson said the disproportionate number of First Nations people in jail shows Canada needs to rethink how it deals with crime.

"We have to look at it and say, 'look, we've been doing it this way, we've been throwing all this money at this justice system and ... the outcomes are terrible,'" she said. "It's a crisis."

Underfunded programs

Robinson said it would be more effective to have restorative justice programs through which people deal with conflicts in their own communities. 

"It's ... very different than ... taking somebody into a courtroom and saying ‘you did a, b and c and so now you're going to go to jail for six months and we're going to put you on an airplane and fly you away from your people,’" she explained.

"It's bringing the person into the group and saying, 'The people in your community are concerned about this ... it's not going to be tolerated and what can we do to help you change?’"

But restorative justice is extremely underfunded, she noted, adding it appears more money is spent by the government on flying lawyers and judges into remote First Nations and flying people out to jail.

More control of community justice

Excerpt from Frank Iacobucci’s report: First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries:

First Nations leaders resoundingly and assertively expressed the desire to assume more control of community justice matters as an element of what they strongly believe is their inherent right to self-government, and at the very least be involved in developing solutions to the jury representation issue.

Having been introduced to community-based restorative justice initiatives in previous years, First Nations experienced the benefits to their communities that came from the development of a culturally-appropriate approach to justice. However, these programs were discontinued owing to funding cuts and will require financial resources and capacity to be resumed.

First Nations leaders were unequivocal that re-introducing restorative justice programs would have multiple benefits at the community level. Such benefits include the delivery of justice in a culturally relevant manner, greater understanding of justice at the community level, increased community involvement in the implementation of justice and, finally, an opportunity to educate people about the justice system and their responsibility to become engaged on the juries when called upon to do so.