CBC In Depth
Saskatchewan's justice reform commission
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004

It's officially called the Commission on First Nations and M�tis Peoples and Justice Reform. It was set up on Nov. 15, 2001, as tension was peaking between police and aboriginal people in Saskatoon.

There had been allegations of police misconduct – claims police were dropping off aboriginal men on the outskirts of Saskatoon in the dead of winter, leaving them to find their own way home.

Darrell Night said that's exactly what happened to him on Feb. 4, 2000. He identified Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson as the officers who kicked him out of a police cruiser near the Queen Elizabeth power station – the same spot where two aboriginal men were found frozen to death in the previous week.

On Sept. 20, 2001, Hatchen and Munson were convicted of unlawful confinement. They were sentenced to eights months in jail. The former police officers would serve about half of that before being released.

Set up by former justice and aboriginal affairs minister Chris Axworthy, the goal of the commission was to "identify efficient, effective and financially responsible reforms to the justice system." The commission's mandate was to recommend how to improve the province's justice system in a way that reflected "the strengths and values of aboriginal people," ultimately leading to safer communities.

Armed with a $2.5-million budget, the commission looked at everything from police forces to jails, including why such a large number of aboriginal people are behind bars. It was chaired by Wilton Littlechild, an Alberta lawyer, former MP and vice-president of the Indigenous Parliament of the Americas.

Other commission members included former Saskatoon Tribal Council chief Joe Quewezance, Prince Albert lawyer Hugh Harradence, Saskatchewan's deputy children's advocate Glenda Cooney, and M�tis corrections official Irene Fraser.

Cooney said the large number of aboriginals in Saskatchewan jails, especially young people, has to be reduced. She vowed that the commission – which would cover much of the same ground as 30 inquiries and task forces before it – would begin with a change in perspective. Young people are not the problem, she said. "We see them as the solution."

The commission began public hearings on April 16, 2002. Among the first to appear was Peter Gilmer from the United Church's Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. He called for an independent commission to investigate complaints against the police. Gilmer argued such a commission would give aboriginals more confidence in the system. When complaints about the police are made, Gilmer said, "the police end up conducting the investigation," which is problematic.

Also on that first day of hearings, members of Regina's Street Culture Kidz Project met with commissioners behind closed doors. The group was composed of young people who had been in trouble with the law.

"They're troubled kids, and attempting to get back on the right track," commission member Joe Quewezance said before meeting the kids. "I think we want to hear what it is that got them to where they are, and how things can be achieved better with their input."

The next month, the commissioners took their inquiry to northern Saskatchewan, away from the urban centres of the south. They were told the system is so badly broken that it can't be fixed. Natives resent a system imposed on them more than a century ago, said Joanne Roy, the director of justice for nine First Nations in the Meadow Lake area of northern Saskatchewan. She told the commission people call her weekly complaining of physical or verbal harassment from police. She recommended a completely new approach, with native police and native courts.

When the commission was set up, it planned to issue interim reports every three months. The first wasn't ready until Jan. 17, 2003. It made seven recommendations, including having the province pay aboriginals to investigate complaints against the police. The commission also said the justice system should adopt guidelines to keep young native offenders out of jail and divert them "into culturally appropriate programs or services."

Back on the public hearing circuit a month later, the commission was told the government should pay kids to go to high school and reward their good grades with clothes and electronics. It was also told that in some cases, it might be all right to limit a person's privacy.

Leanne Sayer, of the Children's Aid Foundation, told the commission parents need to be held more accountable. Those who allow drug or alcohol consumption, and sexual and criminal activity in their homes should be charged. She argued preventing fetal alcohol syndrome would go a long way to preventing crime. She called on the government to do whatever it takes to make sure women don't drink when they're pregnant. "If prevention requires detention of the mothers, then I think that's what we should do," she said.

By Nov. 20, 2003, the commission was ready to release its second interim report. Among its recommendations were moves to include native people more in the court system – and "that Saskatchewan Justice and Justice Canada install cultural symbols in all courts in Saskatchewan that will recognize the respect courts have for First Nations Treaties and the rich cultural heritage brought by Aboriginal persons to the Saskatchewan social and judicial fabric."

On June 21, 2004, the commission released its final report – complete with 122 recommendations. Entitled "Legacy of Hope," it cites racism among the province's police services as a major reason why aboriginal people misunderstand and mistrust the justice system. The report suggests the way to eliminate racism in policing is through better screening, beefed-up training programs for officers who exhibit racist attitudes and a more proactive strategy to recruit First Nations and M�tis officers.

Among the other recommendations:
  • An independent complaints investigation agency for First Nations, M�tis and non-aboriginal people to be in place by April 1, 2005.
  • Build emergency detox centres immediately in Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert and La Ronge.
  • Establish a "therapeutic court" to deal with issues such as addictions, fetal alcohol syndrome and family violence.
  • Involve the community in screening cases before charges are laid, allowing Crown prosecutors to consider whether a case could be better dealt with in the community instead of court.
  • Consider sentencing alternatives with input from First Nations and M�tis elders.
  • A provincial study on why the incarceration rate is so high among aboriginal youth; a strategy to reduce that rate by March 31, 2005.
  • More articling positions at Saskatchewan legal aid for aboriginals; federal and provincial governments should ensure aboriginals sit as judges at every level of court within the province.
The report also called on the province to appoint someone to make sure the recommendations are acted on by Oct. 1, 2005. That person would be required to report back within six months of the appointment on what action had been taken.

Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert said the commission was not "an exercise to go on any kind of a library shelf." He added the government is taking the report seriously, but does not have the money to implement all of the recommendations immediately.

The report

News archive:

Sask. native justice commission pushes reforms

New justice system needed, Sask. native leaders say

Sask. needs independent investigations of police, commission hears

Justice commission hears harsh recommendations


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Total population of Canada: 31,414,000

Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890


North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:


People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625

People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260

People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230

(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins

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Gov. Gen. Rom�o LeBlanc's speech at Rideau Hall on June 13, 1996

Statistics Canada profile on aboriginal Canadians

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