In the area around Kenora, Ont., fewer than 10 per cent of potential jurors are natives living on reserve, even though they make up roughly 35 per cent of the population. The figure for the district around Thunder Bay is similarly disproportionate.
Overrepresented in prison and underrepresented on juries, the situation facing aboriginal people in Northern Ontario represents a crisis in Ontario's justice system, according to a major report issued by retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci Tuesday.
"Access to justice, the administration of justice, the availability and quality of legal services, the treatment of first nations peoples in the justice system all are wanting," Mr. Iacobucci said. "What has become abundantly clear to me is that the justice system as it relates to first nations is currently in a crisis, particularly in Northern Ontario."
Mr. Iacobucci was asked by the provincial government in 2011 to look into the lack of first nations representation on jury rolls. But the issues facing aboriginals in the justice system go well beyond jury representation and it would be foolish to think they're not connected, he concluded.
Mr. Iacobucci said the word "crisis" is not normally in his vocabulary, but in this case he believes the issues he has raised require urgent attention. He made 17 recommendations, including that an implementation committee be struck to follow up on his report and that a first nations advisory committee to the attorney-general be created. He also recommended that Ontario immediately look into the possibility of using data from the ministries of health or transport, rather than municipal property assessment rolls, to establish the lists of potential jurors.
Attorney-General John Gerretsen said he welcomed the report and would act immediately to create the implementation and advisory committees.
"It will take a lot of work. But we want to make sure that juries in the future, particularly in Northern Ontario, but throughout Ontario, have on their rolls aboriginal representation," Mr. Gerretsen said.
Mr. Iacobucci's report was commissioned after coroner's inquests into the deaths of aboriginal teens were stopped due to a lack of aboriginal jurors.
He said although his original assignment was relatively narrow, it was impossible to tackle without dealing with many other issues as well.
Although he didn't go so far as to call into question the fairness of the justice system, he did say there are clearly problems, particularly with the quality of legal representation afforded some First Nations accused of crimes. He heard of many instances where people pleaded guilty to crimes that resulted in a criminal record merely to get the issue over with, he said.
"I'm not saying that means no one is getting a fair trial but I do think that there are people that are not getting what we would call a fair shake," Mr. Iacobucci said.
There is also a historical legacy of mistrust that needs to be overcome for first nations people to come forward to participate in the jury system. Many first nations people view the system as "working against them, rather than for them," he wrote, so that to participate in the delivery of the system is seen as an affront.
Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Northern Ontario Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said Mr. Iacobucci's report should be a wake-up call. "He has spoken in very blunt terms about what is wrong with the justice systems. He has not pulled any punches. He has reported on systemic discrimination in policing, in the prisons and in the poor quality of legal representation that makes guilty pleas and convictions almost automatic."
With a report from Adrian Morrow