Government Commitments

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Yukon’s new chief justice on Indigenous representation and reconciliation in the justice system

December 14, 2023

Leonard Marchand, named chief justice of Court of Appeal, is Syilx and a member of the Okanagan Indian Band

A headshot of a man wearing a judge's robes.
‘The justice system has a major credibility gap to overcome in many Indigenous communities,’ said Leonard Marchand, who’s been named chief justice of Yukon’s Court of Appeal. (B.C. Court of Appeal)

CBC Indigenous: The Yukon Court of Appeal has a new chief justice.  Leonard Marchand, who is Syilx and a member of the Okanagan Indian Band, was appointed to the role last week. 

Marchand was also appointed as the chief justice for the Court of Appeal in B.C., where he is the first Indigenous person to serve in that role

He has served on B.C.’s Supreme Court since 2017 and was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2021. He grew up in Kamloops, B.C., and attended law school at the University of Victoria. 

Marchand spoke with CBC’s Yukon Morning host Elyn Jones about what his Yukon appointment means to him and how he thinks the justice system can better serve Indigenous people. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to be a lawyer, and then a judge? 

It wasn’t a straight line. When I was a young person, I wasn’t inclined to become a lawyer. I didn’t dream of becoming a lawyer. I was pretty good in math and chemistry and physics and I dreamed of becoming an engineer, which is what I did. I went off and worked in the oil industry for some years. 

It wasn’t personally fulfilling to me and I thought about alternatives, and settled on the law as a way – maybe it sounds a little corny – a way that I could help people.

What does it mean to you to serve as a chief justice in the Yukon?

I have a personal connection to the Yukon that dates back to June of 1999 when a group of women in the Yukon were looking for a First Nations lawyer to help them with residential school claims. I traveled to their communities and they did me the great honour of trusting me with their very personal and harrowing experiences at residential school. I worked very hard to advance their claims along the way and I learned many lessons that honestly changed the trajectory of my life. 

You’re the first Indigenous chief justice in B.C. How significant is that for you personally? 

Including First Nations people in the justice system is really, critically important to the proper functioning of the system and also for reconciliation. For far too long, government policies have both legislated exclusion and legislated assimilation. 

As a result, the justice system has a major credibility gap to overcome in many Indigenous communities. One of the ways to overcome those gaps is to include Indigenous people within the system in a meaningful way, not in some sort of superficial way. 

People will see, I think, someone who reflects some of the diversity that we have in our society. Hopefully people will feel that this is working properly, it’s there for them and can understand better the experiences of everyone. 

Are you seeing more representation over time? 

There are lots and lots of very bright, very talented Indigenous students who are pursuing careers in the law. We’re seeing an increase in the number of Indigenous lawyers practicing, an increasing number of Indigenous people being appointed to courts, and in particular a good number of Indigenous judges serving in trial courts here in B.C.

Is there more change that you’d like to see in the justice system?

Part of the process of reconciliation is incorporating Indigenous voices and Indigenous values into the justice system. Part of that value is an educational one. Actors in the justice system are learning about different cultures, traditions, histories, legal orders. It’s a big movement throughout the system at law schools and continuing legal education for lawyers and within the judiciary. Education is going to be key for all of us in the justice system. 

I think it’s more than just creating so-called Gladue courts or Indigenous sentencing courts. There’s the little things that we need to do to encourage people to come forward when they’ve been a victim of crime, to participate as a witness in a trial, to respond to jury notice and serve on a jury. 

We have to find a better way to invite people in. 

With files from Elyn Jones