Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 31: Justice (25-42)

Manitoba Indigenous organizations taking the lead on court supports

February 7, 2023

Delivery of the Indigenous Court Work Program is being transferred to four groups

Delivery of the Indigenous Court Work Program is being transferred from the government of Manitoba to Indigenous communities. (Shutterstock)

CBC News: The Manitoba government is restructuring the Indigenous Court Work Program and providing funding to help support Indigenous people involved in the justice system.

The process of transferring the delivery of the program, which helps Indigenous people navigate the system, from the province to four Indigenous organizations began on Tuesday, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said. The move will be backed by joint provincial and federal government grants of more than $1 million a year for two years.

The funding will revitalize a long-standing program and valuable resource, said Edwin Wood, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) justice programs manager. “The court worker program has proven to be a valuable, valuable resource,” he said, adding that letting the organizations take the lead will provide a “more culturally responsive approach.” 

The service delivery agreement signed by the Manitoba Government includes the MKO, the Southern Chief’s Organization and the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), according to a provincial news release. The government is also finalizing an agreement with the Island Lake Tribal Council.

The agreement marks the official start of the transfer, a process that began in 2021.

The Indigenous Court Work Program provides services to give people fair, just, equitable and culturally relevant support. This includes supporting the accused and their families and providing connections to resource agencies and court officials. Wood said they will also offer language support to ensure people understand court jargon and what is happening.

MKO will have three court workers — two in Thompson and one in The Pas, once they are hired and trained.

The court workers will be available to anyone required to appear in court, including victims of crime.  “We anticipate that they will be front and centre in court in collaboration with the Crown, the defence, the judiciary,” he said. “That way … the person who’s appearing knows what’s going on there. There are less questions and there is more understanding.”

These steps will help prevent re-offending, Wood said. “This will provide that healing journey for many of our citizens who find themselves in hardships, conflicts with the law,” he said. “We can make those connections with them and hopefully they’ll find their own personal healing journeys,” he said, adding that should help families and communities.

In a news release, The Southern Chiefs Organization said it will have three First Nation Court Workers working in Portage La Prairie, Selkirk, and Dauphin and will attend circuit court locations, including those in Bloodvein, Berens River, and other court locations within member Nations. The organization did not reply to interview requests before the publication deadline.

A critical change

The MMF, the government of the Red River Métis, will hire three workers who will work with courts under the direction of the Federation, said Julyda Lagimodiere, MMF Minister of Justice. The workers will be used across the province.

It marks the first time the Federation has had a court worker program. Transferring the program to Indigenous organizations was critical because Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the Canadian justice system, she said.

The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison continues to worsen, with Indigenous people now making up 32 per cent of the prison population, and more than 50 per cent of incarcerated women.

“I think we understand our people better than anybody else” and the impacts going through court can have on an individual, their families and their community, she said. The goal of the MMF program is to look at people holistically and to find out how they got involved in the system and how we can help them, she said. 

The Federation will look at the number of files and the number of people who end up back in court to gauge if the program is working. Lagimodiere said they will also be looking for direct feedback from Red River Métis citizens. Based on this feedback the program will evolve and adapt as needed as they work with the court and the processes in place.

The ultimate goal is to prevent recidivism, helping people take responsibility and be accountable for their own actions, and behaviours along with connecting them to resources. “It’s not enough to just hold somebody accountable,” she said. “You have to give them the tools so they can make a change.”