Responding to concerns about chronic under-representation of native people on juries in the province, the British Columbia government has asked band leaders to provide the names of people living on reserves.
Those names – to be provided only with permission from those on the list – are to be cross-referenced with names already in a provincial database in the hopes of boosting the number of native people in the juror pool.
The outreach comes as Ontario has launched a review into how native people are selected for jury duty and after the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association – spurred by developments in Ontario – raised concerns about the process in B.C.
B.C. does not track jurors by population group, but anecdotal reports suggest native jurors are rare, even in communities where a significant percentage of the population is aboriginal.
“I have had concerns raised by aboriginal people, especially in the north, that when they are involved in the criminal justice system, that the jails are full of aboriginal people – but the judges, the juries and the lawyers are predominantly white,” David Eby, executive director of the BCCLA, said in a recent interview.
“Their concern is that they don’t see a lot of aboriginal representation on the other side of the prisoner’s dock.”
Earlier this month – after court decisions found gaps in how native people were included in Ontario’s jury rolls – retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci was appointed to head a review of the process.
Ontario and B.C. use different systems. Ontario uses municipal assessment lists – which do not include the names of native people living on reserves – as the basis for its juror pool, while B.C. uses data collected by Elections B.C.
Ontario has provisions to include the names of people living on reserves in the juror pool, but those provisions have been shown to be problematic. According to court documents, inquiries relating to a Kenora inquest found only 44 native people – of a population of more than 12,000 in the region – were listed on the 2007 jury roll.
In B.C., sheriffs use lists compiled by Elections B.C., which “makes every reasonable effort to enumerate persons wherever they reside in British Columbia, including persons living on reserves,” former B.C. Attorney-General Barry Penner said in a July letter to the BCCLA. Mr. Penner resigned as Attorney-General on Thursday.
B.C. also has a policy on the books designed to ensure that reserve residents who have chosen not to be enumerated are included in the jury pool, but that policy is dated and may not have been fully implemented. Historically, enumerators were sometimes refused access to reserves.
“The sheriff policy provided to your organization was first prepared approximately 20 years ago and illustrates the extra steps taken by Sherriff Services in an attempt to include residents of reserves that choose not to be enumerated for voting purposes,” Mr. Penner said in the letter.
“I appreciate that you have brought to my attention that these extra efforts may not have occurred recently in some instances.”
The province has written to 191 bands and to date has received replies from six, Mr. Penner said this week.
Of those, two declined to provide names while the others either provided names or are in the process of canvassing residents on the issue, he said.
The heads of several other bands said residents are still weighing the request.
About 85,000 people are called each year in B.C. to potentially serve on a jury panel and about 1,200 ultimately serve as jurors at a trial.