Indigenous Justice Issues
Chad Haggerty grew up on a Metis settlement in northern Alberta, Canada. Difficult memories of his youth kept him from focusing on them for most of his life. His daughters and his partner Katie are the reasons he now makes time for that reflection with his writing the by-product. Chad spent 17 years as a police officer and is now completing a law degree. He hopes to help improve access to justice for marginalized populations
The recent judicial decisions in the murders of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine have left many people, especially Indigenous people, feeling that the criminal justice system is unfair. A quick review of the criminal justice system demonstrates that there is an overrepresentation of Indigenous Canadians in the system. What that means is that a population that makes up approximately 4% of Canadian Society makes up around 27% of the incarcerated population.
Age, unemployment, and education have been suggested as factors contributing to Indigenous over-representation. Although these factors may account for some of the reasons for overrepresentation, the information does not get to the heart of the matter: it is past injustices against Indigenous people that are the biggest reason for the overrepresentation of Indigenous Canadians in the criminal justice system.
Efforts to eliminate Aboriginal culture in Canada began with the arrival of the Jesuit Missionaries in the early 1800’s. Jesuit efforts to convert “Les Sauvages” from their heathen ways to Catholicism were facilitated through trading goods only to those Aboriginal People who demonstrated that they had taken on European (French) mannerisms and faith. Additionally, the only Aboriginal people allowed to trade furs with the French were those Aboriginals who had converted or demonstrated a conversion. Wealth was acquired as a result of turning away from traditional beliefs and practices. This discriminatory distribution of wealth directly changed the manner in which status was afforded in Aboriginal society. Social status was no longer defined by the individual’s contribution to society but by the personal accumulation of wealth. Most importantly, the individual’s sense of self-worth began to become based on wealth and individuality. This dramatic externally imposed cultural change resulted in creating an atmosphere wherein Aboriginal People questioned their cultural identity and viewed their traditional culture and traditions with shame. Without a strong sense of identity and lacking the social structure that previously existed, the ability of Indigenous people to adapt and overcome new situations was severely impaired.
By the mid 1800’s, the process of displacing Aboriginal People from their lands and placing them onto reservations had begun. Eventually, these actions were passed into law with the Indian Act of 1876. The integration of Indigenous people into mainstream society was not only inadvertently hampered but actively discouraged. Indigenous people required permission from an Indian Agent to leave their reservation. First Nations people living on reserves couldn’t sell produce off reserve without permission. The most notable of these actions is the Indian Residential School policy enacted by the Canadian government. This policy required, by law, that Indigenous youth between the ages of 7-15 be separated from their family and enrolled in residential schools. Rather than a policy of segregation, the process of assimilating Aboriginal People began in earnest. The degradation of Aboriginal culture, language, and identity became intensely focused and overt.
These and other restrictions were designed to clearly delineate the fact that Indigenous people were not an accepted, not desired, and not seen as a functional part of Canadian society. Arguments have been made suggesting that the ability of Aboriginal People to exercise self-determination now exists; that Aboriginal People no longer suffer the prejudices once leveled at them. The fact is that Canadian society is not yet two decades past the time when Governmental policies directly aimed at ensuring the systemic loss of cultural and personal identity of Aboriginal people existed. These policies actively worked to erode the self-esteem of Aboriginal people and did so for almost three centuries.
At a time when the Canadian government is frequently speaking to the need for reconciliation, evidence that reconciliation is actually happening is important. Regardless of the reasons for the decisions in the Boushie and Fontaine murders, the cases give Indigenous Canadians foundation for their fear that the government is still not concerned with the well-being of Indigenous people. Worse than “unconcerned”, these trials give rise to the concern that the previously overt efforts at eliminating indigenous Canadians have now simply become more difficult to see. Although the criminal justice system is not intended to serve the social justice realm, the impact of criminal justice decisions on social justice are dramatic.
For justice to truly be done, it must be seen to be done. Indigenous Canadians have not seen justice being done, not now and, perhaps, not ever. That needs to change.