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Alberta calls on Ottawa to fix system to increase Indigenous representation on juries

Garret Smith uses social media to get his message out at the Soaring Eagle Camp across from the courthouse in Calgary.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Alberta is urging the federal government to quickly make changes to Canada's justice system so Indigenous people are better represented on juries, aligning the province with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's controversial statements after a high-profile court case.

Richard Feehan, Alberta's Minister of Indigenous Relations, asked Ottawa this week not only for revisions to legal processes but also for cash so provinces and Indigenous communities can work toward this goal, according to a letter dated Feb. 27 and obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The plea comes as protests spread across the country after two men, in separate cases, were acquitted of killing Indigenous individuals. In one trial, the defendant's lawyer blocked people who appeared to be Indigenous from serving on the jury; Mr. Trudeau, in the wake of the acquittal, pledged to alter how jurors are picked. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould also expressed concern after the verdict. Critics, in turn, accused them of political interference.

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Read More: Deaths of Boushie, Fontaine spark difficult classroom discussions, professors say

Alberta, in its letter to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, pushed the federal government to make good on its promise to rewrite legislation, including reforming peremptory challenges – the mechanism that allows lawyers to nix potential jurors without explanation.

"A number of events in the last few weeks have brought the issue of jury selection and composition to the forefront of calls for reform of the criminal justice system, which has drawn particular attention to the use of peremptory challenges," Mr. Feehan said in his letter. "Concerns in relation to the composition of juries must be taken seriously and dealt with expeditiously."

The provincial government wants Canada to follow recommendations that former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci made in 2013, regarding Ontario juries, including preventing the use of peremptory challenges to discriminate against potential First Nations jurors, according to Alberta's letter.

"We strongly urge that his recommendations guide the changes that must come, and ask that you partner with provincial and territorial partners to address concerns regarding jury selection and composition," Mr. Feehan wrote. Mr. Iacobucci, in his report, said First Nations jury service could still be "significantly undermined through discriminatory use of peremptory challenges" even if all other recommendations in his report were adopted.

Two recent murder trials have heightened concerns around how Indigenous people are treated in Canada's justice system. Gerald Stanley, a non-Indigenous rancher in rural Saskatchewan, was acquitted in February after being charged with second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie. Mr. Boushie was a Cree man who died after being shot on Mr. Stanley's property. Mr. Stanley testified that the gun, which he was holding, accidentally fired. His lawyer used peremptory challenges to prevent individuals who appeared to be Indigenous from serving on the jury, a move that sparked anger across the country.

Two weeks later, Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of second-degree murder in Tina Fontaine's death. The Indigenous teenager's body was found in Winnipeg's Red River, wrapped in a blanket and weighted with rocks. Mr. Cormier was captured on undercover tapes discussing her death, but he never confessed. Visible minorities, including Indigenous people, were among the jurors that acquitted him.

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Canadians – Indigenous and otherwise – continued to protest. Darla Contois set up a camp at the Manitoba legislature after Mr. Cormier was acquitted. She is still camping. Her protest inspired one of her friends, Garret Smith, to do the same in Calgary. He and some friends erected a white canvas structure – complete with a small wood-burning barrel stove for warmth, last Sunday. The tent, which is about three metres by two metres, was last used in North Dakota, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others fought to block an oil pipeline.

The camps are spreading. Another was set up on Wednesday at Saskatchewan's legislature and Mr. Smith said more are in the works.

Hundreds of people – some Indigenous, some not; some strangers, some family and friends – are dropping by Mr. Smith's camp, which is across the street from Calgary's downtown courthouse. Visitors bring supplies and support. Wood and water are stored outside. Blankets are stacked in the tent's corners. Lawn chairs and a cot line the inside edges. On the frozen ground in the middle, there are bags and boxes of donated food. Bananas, oranges, Tim Hortons doughnuts, bannock, chips, cheese, tzatziki, organic milk, juice and more accumulate. The camp is rarely short on boxes of hot coffee. Red dresses, which honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, hang inside and out of the tent. People drop off phone chargers. Some stay for a visit. Social media, particularly Facebook Live, is key to spreading awareness.

But the camp's end-goal is fuzzy.

"The justice that we're looking for, we've never experienced it. So we don't know what it feels like," Mr. Smith said while drinking out of a Tim Hortons cup and shivering. "When people ask us what we want, we want justice but we don't know what that looks like."

For now, the group wants others to be aware of Indigenous issues. "Making our presence known," he said.

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Sandra Jansen, Alberta's Infrastructure Minister, said in a statement that the campers are free to stay. "I have directed my department to ensure that their rights and freedom of expression continue to be protected," she said.

Renae Reinfort, a 39-year-old Indigenous student who also works for Alberta Health Services, dropped off a dozen Tim Hortons muffins at the camp this week. She is leery about the Prime Minister's pledge to change Canada's jury system.

"I don't know if it is just talk to make everybody happy," Ms. Reinfort said. "He's starting to be known as all talk, no action."

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