At the end of January, the Quebec Bar Association released a report that detailed how above the 49th parallel the justice system was “failing” in just about every way because of a serious lack of infrastructure and resources.
The report – “La justice dans le nord” – compared justice administration above the 49th parallel to that of a developing country because of a critical lack of infrastructure, including courthouses, rehab programs, social workers, crime-prevention programs and detention facilities.
That may be true of much of Northern Quebec, but not of Eeyou Istchee. Perhaps because of that fact the Cree were left out of this report, except for two mentions.
To research the report, Quebec Bar Association president Bernard Synnott and his colleagues made four trips north, visiting six communities, to observe how justice was carried out throughout the region. They noticed that much of the system was improvised, lacking not only facilities but also judges and lawyers, who only fly in every few months.
According to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, other leaders in the region applauded the report because it detailed their struggle for resources and services. However, at the same time, he would like to know why the Cree were excluded from the report because it is supposed to detail justice above the 49th parallel – which is where Eeyou Istchee is located.
“Why were we not asked when we have a system that works and we are dealing with all of the issues that they are addressing – this could really be the model,” he said. “It is as if they are trying to exclude us to save money because it does cost money to have proper justice buildings so that people do not meet in gymnasiums and band buildings and have the proper equipment.”
The result is an unbalanced report, Coon Come said, with an approach that amounts to a “policy of exclusion.”
Coon Come said there are several issues outlined in the Synnott report that do not apply to the Cree system. While the report states that there are “insufficient” court dates and judges to meet the caseloads in the north, it did note how in Eeyou Istchee there was an increase from 18 to 29 weeks of court. While the need has been expressed for more court time to be made available, Coon Come said the Cree Regional Authority (CRA) is currently looking at a number of options to address this.
While an insufficient number of Aboriginal court workers is also identified in the report, Coon Come said that in the Cree context this is certainly not true as the communities employ a large number of Cree justice officers, reintegration officers, prevention officers, Native Court workers, Crime Victims’ Assistance Centre (CAVAC) officers, court clerks and other workers who participate in the justice and corrections systems. And, there is also sufficient number of translators in the communities though these positions are filled by Quebec’s Ministry of Justice.
“The report also mentioned the need for clarification for the roles of actors in the justice system. What we have done for this is to train Cree personnel to work regularly with all of the actors in the justice system. These are all of the lawyers, the clerks, the psychologists and anybody else associated with the justice system or who travels with the circuit court,” explained Coon Come.
While the report points to inadequate facilities for justice and detention, stating that court sessions are often held in inappropriate locations that leave nowhere for lawyers to meet with their clients, the Cree have seen the creation of several brand-new, state-of-the-art justice facilities over the last decade.
These facilities feature unique round courtrooms that incorporate the Cree value of inclusiveness. As Coon Come stated, they wanted to have a sense of community integrated into the system because of the belief that “we all have a part in justice as a community and nation.”
They also feature the latest standards to ensure the safety of staff and clients, such as large public waiting areas to accommodate the people and secured facilities that are locked to ensure the safety of those who use and work in these buildings.
“It is a safeguard as emotions can take hold in proceedings so it protects all participants,” said Coon Come.
While the report addresses numerous problems, such as the issue of isolation of offenders held far away from home, the Cree actually do work with the Ministry of Public Security to keep them as close to the communities as possible.
The report does not acknowledge that the Cree have made excellent progress in providing accessibility to and information on legal-aid services in Quebec, and at recruiting and training Aboriginal lawyers.
“Beyond what was highlighted in the Quebec Bar report as being absent, our staff produce Gladue reports, correctional release plans and other reports regularly for the justice and corrections systems in northern Quebec,” said Coon Come.
The Cree have also developed innovative land-based programming geared at healing and rehabilitating offenders. Other programs geared at crime prevention teach children anger management skills.
What disappointed Coon Come the most was that the report only mentions deficiencies in the Cree justice system, and not its many successes that could be a model for other northern communities.
“Instead it is as if we don’t exist – this is what you call institutional racism,” said Coon Come. “I am so disappointed that we were excluded when there is an example here of a model that could be adapted to meet the conditions of our neighbours, the Inuit.”
According to Donald Nicholls, the CRA’s Director of Justice and Correctional Services, the Cree system is built on the principle of investing in the Cree people and this principle can be applied to all people.
“The headlines are misleading, there has always been justice within our society, and in recent years we have worked towards the establishment of a new integrated system that recognizes both the traditional and contemporary systems with the goal to better serve our communities,” said Nicholls.
“Our leadership has always been open about sharing with other First Nations. So if we happen to have something others would like to know more about, we are happy to share what we can.”