Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 42: Justice (25-42)

‘Beat them at their own game’: Indigenous Justice Centres aim to dismantle colonial law

November 1, 2023

Jaime McKinley, office administrator of the Chilliwack Indigenous Justice Centre. Photo by BC First Nations Justice Council Listen to article

Canada’s National Observer: It wasn’t until Amanda Carling, a Métis from Red River, sat down in her law class at the University of Toronto that she realized the racist underpinnings of the profession she’d entered. 

“Not only did lawyers watch the genocide against Indigenous people happen and do nothing, as a body, lawyers allowed the genocide to happen,” she said. “Because they drafted the Indian Act.”

The more she learned about the colonial laws that took children, resources and economic opportunities away from Indigenous people, the more she began to want to dismantle it.

Now, Carling, CEO of the BC First Nations Justice Council, is spearheading the opening of five regional Indigenous Justice Centres across B.C. this fall. These five centres will add to five pre-existing centres in the province and bring the council closer to fulfilling its goal of opening 15 centres in B.C. by 2024.

The creation of these centres is one of the many initiatives being undertaken as part of the BC First Nations Justice Strategy, carried out by the council and endorsed by both the provincial and federal governments. In 2022, Canada committed $8.9 million to the council to expand the number of centres in B.C. And in June, the province announced $44 million to help open the centres.

Indigenous Justice Centres provide free, culturally appropriate legal services in criminal defence and child protection matters to self-identifying Indigenous people. The centres’ mandate is to keep First Nations out of the justice system and reinstate traditional Indigenous justice systems.

Indigenous people represent nearly 30 per cent of people with a federal sentence and comprise one-third of all people in custody, according to a 2022 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, despite accounting for only five per cent of the population. 

Due to systemic racism in the current colonial justice system, a lack of awareness of intergenerational trauma and culturally appropriate services continue to plague Indigenous people in the system, the report states.

Indigenous Justice Centres provide a space where Indigenous people with legal matters currently before the courts can seek support. They also gather information about what aspects of B.C.’s justice strategy are working in each community and what aspects are not.

Ultimately, Carling said the centres are an opportunity to understand why Indigenous people end up in the legal system to begin with, and how to keep them from ending up in it again.  “As long as the colonial law has application over Indigenous people, we want to, frankly, beat them at their own game,” she said.

Christina Gray, who is Dene, a Ts’msyen citizen from Lax Kw’alaams, and a lawyer at JFK Law Corporation, said an Indigenous Justice Centre offers unique support and is more approachable than a traditional law firm.

“Historically, and now, legal services have been quite intimidating, challenging and disorienting for Indigenous peoples,” she said. “And so these centres are meant to sort of demystify and assist First Nations people who are seeking legal services.”

This means not only looking at how to deal with the legal matter before the courts but also looking at the series of events and historic injustices that led to the individual ending up in this situation, Carling said.

By taking a step back and including the greater context of a person’s individual situation in their review, justice centre staff can effectively work to prevent those people from ending up back in their care. “That’s different from a law firm where … the people who are working in the criminal justice system, who are working in child protection, have a financial interest in seeing clients come back again and again,” she said.

Understanding the unique histories and current realities of communities is another important part of the challenge, Gray said.

Local Elders and community leaders sit in a dialogue circle at the opening of the Chilliwack Indigenous Justice Centre on June 12, 2023. Photo by BC First Nations Justice Council

“Each justice centre is pretty uniquely situated in different parts of the province. So, they might not require the same sort of catch-all approach,” she said.

Carling said this is why it’s vital to have a continuous feedback loop between the communities the centres are in and the justice council. Obstacles Indigenous people face will develop over time and place, meaning the justice strategy needs to be adaptable, she said.

Depending on the centre, Carling said some have an elder or traditional knowledge keeper in residence at all times. Other centres in communities with strong engagement emphasize Indigenous-led sobriety programs — like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gray said the justice centre’s services for Indigenous-led child protection issues are particularly meaningful, due to Canada’s long record of past and present assimilationist policies, including residential schools.

To date, 462 people have been served by legal and outreach teams at the five existing Indigenous Justice Centres. Now, the council is hiring 75 new staff as the network of centres expands.

This work cannot be delayed any longer, Carling said.  “We recognize that the (colonial) system profits off Indigenous people’s pain,” she said. 

She said she hopes these centres will bring momentum to the fundamental shift that needs to happen to give First Nations sovereignty over law.

“(It’s important) that we don’t spend our entire lives tinkering at the edges of the system that was never meant to support us and we actually move away to a different system,” she said.  “And that system is self-determination over justice issues.”

Pippa Norman, writer