This opinion comes from Andre Bear, a recent law student, former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the First Nations Assembly’s National Youth Council.
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I recently graduated from law school and officially joined the Canadian legal system where I will start with a law practice in Toronto.
Like many law students, I began this journey believing that I could make a difference by speaking up for those who are still waiting to be heard. That said, even before I went to law school, I realized that Canadian law is concrete and incredibly slow to change, no matter what attorney you become or what positions you hold.
This became more evident when Jody Wilson-Raybould became Canada’s first Indigenous Attorney General. Faced with endless challenges as an Indigenous woman, she was eventually removed from the Liberal faction before she could really make a difference in Canadian law.
Indigenous Peoples have been disproportionately harmed by Canada’s legal system since our country’s founding. Violent settler colonialism and systemic racism are well documented in almost every area of the law.
To be clear, law school does not teach you how to make a difference in Canadian law.
It indoctrinates you to uphold the religious principles of punishment and deterrence. Punishing those who break the law will deter them from committing further crimes – this remains the basic tenet of the Canadian legal system.
From time to time, a few professors would talk about this alternative system called “restorative justice” and how it had been proven to transform the lives of offenders, victims, and entire communities.
They would provide examples such as Norway, which has the lowest recidivism rate (people who re-offend) in the world, and a prison system that actually benefits the economy because prisoners receive higher education while being trained in skills and occupations imprisoned.
Don’t get me wrong, the current Attorney General of Canada, David Lametti, has made several attempts to promote restorative justice through funding programs and Bill C-5 to end the mandatory minimum sentence.
The most historic step to date to improve Canada’s legal system was the passage of Bill C-15, an action plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ensuring that all Canadian laws are consistent with indigenous peoples’ rights to self-government are and self-determination.
This was a giant step in recognizing aboriginal rights, but even more so in recognizing aboriginal rights.
As an aspiring lawyer, I see this as one of the most important moments in our history.
If we can seize this opportunity to establish an Indigenous justice system in Canada, it could put an end to the excessive incarceration of our people and huge systemic racism.
For decades there have been endless reports and studies on how to address these issues. They were all ignored.
Sometimes I think that if we created an indigenous justice system, Canada would have no one left to lock up.
Now that indigenous people’s rights to self-government and self-determination are recognized, indigenous courts must be established to enforce the indigenous laws that are the basis for restorative justice, healing, and redemption.
Perhaps this is what Canada needs to inspire the development of a system that is destructive and unsustainable. Because not only indigenous people suffer from the legal system.
This includes all judges, attorneys, court clerks, and law enforcement officials who are overworked, overburdened, and often traumatized by a flawed system that only perpetuates harm, rather than preventing it.
healing and redemption
Canadian offenders are still awaiting their chance for healing and redemption.
Hopefully, when indigenous courts are established, it will inspire transformative change toward restorative justice, healing and redemption in the Canadian legal system.
Now more than ever, this society could use our ancient legal knowledge of how to live sustainably with the land and in harmony with one another.
However, this knowledge no longer requires acknowledgment through words, affirmations, or symbolism. The knowledge of the indigenous ancestors now requires the force of the law.
I will never forget the words of the late Harold Johnson, a legendary Indigenous lawyer who was once asked about the establishment of an Indigenous legal system.
“It can’t get any worse than what we have now.”
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