When Mgizehs Shaggi, 13, sits down in the witness box, playing the role of the accused in a mock assault trial in his public-school classroom, he opts to swear his oath with a foot-long ceremonial eagle feather, promising to tell the truth.
He keeps holding the feather, examining the beads at its base, as his classmates, wearing lawyers’ robes and acting as his defence team, ask him where he was when “Jared Kakebanik” – the victim, played by 13-year-old Troy Yellowhorse – was beaten up and robbed of his basketball shoes in a nearby park.
The feather belongs to Mr. Justice Harry LaForme of the Ontario Court of Appeal, the first – and so far, only – aboriginal judge ever appointed to an appellate court in Canada, who is sitting nearby.
Judge LaForme is presiding over this mock trial in a Grade 7 and 8 classroom at the First Nations School of Toronto, in a pilot project for a program that aims to provide an inside look at the justice system to young native people. The goal is partly to inspire some of them to follow in Judge LaForme’s footsteps into the law – a profession that still, despite progress, fails to reflect the diversity of the country.
The program, one of a number of outreach initiatives by Canadian Lawyers Abroad, which also runs programs in developing countries, is called Dare to Dream. Similar mock trials are being tried out in Calgary-area classrooms and the group plans to soon bring the program to schools on remote reserves and in the North.
The unique east-end Toronto school treated to this pilot exercise draws students from across the city and from a wide variety of aboriginal backgrounds. It’s an unusual school in the heart of this city on any other day, too: Students here learn the Ojibway language and take the Ontario curriculum through a First Nations lens.
But perhaps like any group of Grade 7s and 8s, many were less than enthusiastic when preparation first began for the trial weeks ago with a team of more than a dozen volunteer lawyers, including some from Bay Street firms such as McMillan LLP and Blake Cassels and Graydon LLP, in-house lawyers from GE Capital, and aboriginal lawyers and law students.
The students’ teacher, Sharla Niroopan, says the class was chilly to the idea initially, but came round quickly and now some students say they hope to study law: “They were like, ‘Screw law, screw the cops.’ Now, they have created so many bonds with the lawyers. … They have connected with mentors.”
Nyame Outten-Joseph, 12, who gave an assertive closing statement for the defence (without notes), tells a reporter afterward that he likes the idea of becoming a lawyer: “You get to put people in jail if they deserve it. And if they don’t, you get to defend people and their human rights.”
In the end, the jury – who marched out into the hall to deliberate, clutching yellow Duo-Tangs covered in notes or doodles or both – found the accused not guilty, accepting defence arguments that the victim might not have been able to see his attackers in the dark. The defence team cheered and high-fived.
After the trial, but before carefully slipping the eagle feather – a gift from an elder that he has used for witnesses in his real courtroom – back into its ornate leather sleeve, Judge LaForme told the silent, attentive class about his own path to a career as a lawyer and then a judge.
He grew up both on the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation reserve and across the border in nearby Buffalo, where his father got a job in a factory. He said he didn’t think that, as a native person living in some “pretty nasty” neighbourhoods, he would one day be a lawyer.
“I was like a lot of people from my reserve. All I wanted to do was to grow up and get a good job. And I never really thought about what that job was going to be,” he said.
But then, he told the class, came the political awakening of the late 1960s. He got involved in the new “Indian movement” that was resisting renewed government attempts at assimilation. And he decided to pursue a career in law, despite the fact there were only a handful of aboriginal lawyers in all of Canada at the time.
“When I started law school, and became a lawyer, there was no such thing as aboriginal-rights law. … Now every law school teaches it. … So we’ve moved a long way in terms of law,” Judge LaForme said.
“Not sure we’ve moved very far in terms of how we treat aboriginal people in this country. We still are the poorest of the poor and all those other things that I know you’ve read about. But we’ve at least got some law now that people like yourselves can go on in the future and make something out of.”