Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

Too many ‘tragic ends’: First Nations call for public inquiry into justice system

January 17, 2024

First Peoples Law Report: Penticton Herald – – Chief George Ginnish says he’s seen too many of his people thrown in jail.

The leader from Natoaganeg (Eel Ground First Nation) in eastern New Brunswick blames a criminal justice system that he says is stacked against Indigenous people, part of the legacy of colonialism and racism.

“I’ve seen so many times youngsters go plead guilty to a charge that will follow them around because there are no First Nations court workers to help them,” said Ginnish, who’s also co-chair of Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., an organization representing most Mi’kmaq communities in New Brunswick.

“They’re going into a justice system that provides them no supports. We’ve got so many of our people that live under the poverty line, how can they afford representation to protect their interests?” Earlier this month, Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., better known as MTI, released its official response to the province’s report on systemic racism, issued in December 2022.

It blasts New Brunswick officials for letting the report collect “dust” on “the shelves of government departments” and renews the calls of First Nations chiefs for the Higgs Progressive Conservative government to hold a separate, Indigenous-led public inquiry on systemic racism in the justice system.

Premier Blaine Higgs has steadfastly refused the request, saying there have already been plenty of studies and reports on the problems plaguing First Nations and that it would just slow down badly need reforms.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn told Brunswick News the Tory government continues to work on the issue. “Systemic racism is real, and it is a brutal reality for many New Brunswickers,” she wrote in an email. “Properly addressing it requires getting to the root cause through a data-driven approach and being able to measure outcomes to determine whether interventions have the desired effect.”

She said an interdepartmental working group was formed to undertake the work, and to date, it had defined the race-based data that needed to be collected across government departments. “Once this data is collected, it will be analyzed to better understand the root causes of systemic racism. This will help government make good, evidence-based decisions, that will serve to address systemic racism and its impact.”

A string of deaths

Anger was sparked among First Nations in 2020 because of three deaths.

First there was the conclusion of the court case involving Brady Francis, a popular 22-year-old man from Elsipogtog (Big Cove First Nation) who was killed in a hit and run in 2018 as he walked alongside a rural road. In May 2020, defendant Maurice Johnson was found not guilty in the death, and Crown prosecutors chose not to appeal.

A month later, police shot and killed two Indigenous people in separate incidents: Chantel Moore, in Edmundston, and Rodney Levis, near Miramichi. Police officers weren’t charged in their deaths but coroner inquests deemed them homicides.

The three tragedies led all First Nation chiefs in New Brunswick to call for an independent, Indigenous-led public inquiry into the systemic racism in the province’s justice system. Those chiefs, both Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey, have repeatedly argued that previous commissions and reports do not specifically address Indigenous racism in New Brunswick, and that the commission set up by the Higgs government to look at systemic racism overall did not adequately address their concerns.

The gap is glaring when it comes to incarceration rates. Brunswick News asked Statistics Canada last week for Indigenous incarceration rates in New Brunswick, but it was unable to do so. Instead, the statistical agency provided the Indigenous incarceration rates of five provinces it monitors for such data, as a representative sample: Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

In those provinces, Indigenous people were nine times more likely to be in jail or prison than non-Indigenous Canadians in 2020-21, the most recent year data is available. Among Indigenous women, over-representation was even worse. They were 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous women.

Statistics Canada had some broad numbers for Indigenous people admitted to jails in New Brunswick: on average 4,847 Indigenous adults a year were admitted to correctional facilities in the province between 2018 and 2022. Among youth offenders, it was 18 on average a year.

Both those numbers are high, relative to the overall population of Indigenous people.

“We’re so vastly over-represented,” Ginnish said. “What does that speak to? That speaks to poverty, to a loss of a way of life. The calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission federally call all that out and calls the provinces out for what their responsibilities are. But this province does not really want to look at itself in the mirror. We’ve called again and again for a public inquiry into the criminal justice system. Let’s strip this away and get to the bottom of it.”

A redacted report

The MTI report argues that Indigenous people should lead a public inquiry and that the $500,000 and one-year mandate given to racism commissioner Manju Varma was not nearly enough. First Nations leaders have repeatedly said the province was directing the racism commissioner about what she could say in her report, allegations Varma and provincial officials have denied.

But the chiefs were shown an interim version of her report at the mid-way point of her work, and it too, recommended a public inquiry, with the power to subpoena witnesses, on Indigenous racism in the criminal justice system.

Her final report did not contain the recommendation.

“That process was manipulated,” Ginnish said. “I mean, geez, the woman had a report that she shared with us that was redacted to hell. And it’s been a year, with no response from the government. And that says it all right there. I know the premier will say, ‘we’ve done this and we’ve done that already’, but he hasn’t done it in partnership with us. It’s always ‘we’re doing this for you.’There’s very little collaboration.”

The MTI report says other public inquiries into Indigenous issues have led to positive changes in other provinces. One example it cited was the Donald Marshall, Jr., inquiry in Nova Scotia in 1989.

The royal commission into the Mi’kmaq teen’s wrongful murder conviction led to several “positive changes,” MTI says, including the Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq law program, which has trained a large number of Mi’kmaq lawyers working within the justice system in Nova Scotia, the Mi’gmaq Legal Support Network, which provides a wide range of supports and services to Mi’kmaq people in the criminal justice system, Indigenous courts and sentencing circles and special training of judges, police officers, Crown attorneys, and others in the justice system.

A positive example

Ginnish has been chief for 28 years in his community and involved in First Nations politics for close to 40.

But he remembers what it was like to be young and discriminated against, recounting going to a store in Miramichi at lunchhour with a friend in junior high and being followed around inside, “because there was a presumption these Indian kids are gonna steal.”

He credits his uncle, Lloyde “Catfish” Ginnish, for keeping him on the straight and narrow. The storyteller, Indigenous historian and sportsman coached minor baseball and hockey for more than two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, setting a shining example.

“He saved a lot of kids. He worked with them, gave them an outlet, and built leadership skills. Having to work together and as a team, has given me a toolkit for politics. But then I look at those old pictures, and still about three-quarters of those kids are no longer with us. In many cases, they’ve had tragic ends, and part of it has been interactions with the criminal justice system and trying to deal with the legacy of residential school abuse.”

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter The Daily Gleaner

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.