In November 2014, Feathers of Hope: Justice and Juries took place in Thunder Bay, ON. It was a second forum that the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth hosted, but it was a special edition. In First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries, Justice Frank Iacobucci included the importance of youth voice in Recommendation #7.
“With Respect to First Nations youth, in addition to having a youth member on the Implementation Committee, the Implementation Committee should request that the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth facilitate a conference of representative youth members from First Nations reserve to focus on specific issues in the relationship between youth, juries and the justice system, addressed in this report. The Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth should prepare a report on that conference; prior to submitting the report to the Implementation Committee the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth should consult with PTOs and other First Nation Associations.”
The timing and importance of this discussion for aboriginal youth became obvious to us when almost 300 young people attempted to register for the 100 spots available at the Feathers of Hope: Justice and Juries forum. Ultimately, we were able to bring together 150 participants from all over the province to discuss the reason and ways to address the lack of First Nations people on juries, as well as come up with solutions to improve the relationships between young people and the justice system in their communities. It became clear from the beginning that youth wanted to talk and were open about the limited knowledge they had about the Ontario’s justice and juries’ process. The young people had a lot of questions about the justice system, like what are their rights and what would they need to know if they ever came into contact with the law. There was power in their voices describing experiences with the justice system that left them feeling disconnected and on the receiving end of a system that felt far from being just. Over the course of the forum, young people spoke about the problems with the justice system and also made many suggestions for improvement that were more in the line with the values, beliefs, and needs in the communities and nations. Many of the youth saw the current structure of the justice system as an imposed system tied to punishment instead of healing. The forum participants want to see the justice system create more relationships and restoring balance in their communities by healing.
Our office ensured participants had access to information about the justice system and about their rights, responsibilities and entitlements under the law. We accomplished this by bringing to the forum a small group of champions from across Ontario. The champions are Aboriginal adults who work(ed) in the justice system and include Cynthia Rietberger, LL.B (Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services), Mandy Wesley, LL.B, (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto), and Jocelynn Formsma, who at the time was a law student with University of Ottawa. The champions sat with the young people in the workshops sessions and spoke about their personal commitment to work to create change, healing and transformation within a system that continues to harm Aboriginal people.
The young people were eager to share their experiences about the realities of how justice is served in their communities. Concerns were raised about the limited knowledge many lawyers have about Aboriginal people and the sense that some lawyers provided poor quality representation. Strong opinion was expressed by youth that judges did not understand reality of life in Northern communities or the ongoing colonization, displacement, the 60’s Scoop or the Residential Schools on the lives of Aboriginal people. Having these conversations with champions in the room gave the young people a sense of safety and hope.
The Justice and Juries Youth Advisory Committee and the Feathers of Hope Amplifiers also met with Jonathan Rudin from Aboriginal legal Services after the forum to ask questions about the Gladue courts and the Gladue decision. The youth were very interested with the Gladue principles, especially the way it’s being utilized. Youth expressed the need to expand the Gladue application to all aspects of the justice systems. This carried over into talk about how the bail process fuels colonization, bias inequality, ‘net widening’ and the increasing rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people. The youth gave a lot of suggestion to the justice systems on how they can better these issues within the systems and take a different approach when dealing with First Nation’s people. One recommendation is for members of the justice system to establish relationships and balance in their communities by helping community members be a part of promoting healing.
In the end, the forum and the Feathers of Hope: Justice and Juries – A First Nations Youth Action Plan for Justice honor’s Justice lacobucci’s call to gather together Aboriginal young people and obtain their thoughts regarding the under representation of Aboriginal people on juries. It reflects the feedback of young people who were clear in their belief that in order to address the problem of under representation you first need to address the issues that make it more likely for an Aboriginal person to be in the front of the judge than to sit in a jury.