Five Manitoba judges, including the chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench, are to meet with First Nations leaders this week to try to find ways to improve the justice system for Indigenous people.
The meeting 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg on Tuesday is part of a recently announced effort to address issues behind the high incarceration rate for Indigenous people in the province, and to start acting on some of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report two years ago.
"The question of a disproportionate presence, in terms of our Indigenous population in prisons, is a brutally tragic fact and we have to address that," Chief Justice Glenn Joyal told The Canadian Press.
Joyal is to be joined by four other judges who are on a committee announced in June that is tasked with finding improvements. They are to meet with community members in Norway House Cree Nation and with representatives of 30 First Nations communities in northern Manitoba.
Joyal said there are a number of ways to accomplish improvements. Drop-in clinics that provide legal advice to low-income earners could be expanded. New guidelines to speed up court cases so that people spent less time in custody awaiting trial could be introduced and courts could make better use of restorative justice and traditional Indigenous practices, so that more offenders could be rehabilitated in the community.
"There's the sense that perhaps we're not fully appreciating or utilizing some of the legal traditions that we could – without in any way compromising the integrity of the rule of law – better utilize," Joyal said.
Norway House Chief Ron Evans said he welcomes the initiative. There are a number of areas where improvement is needed, he said, including a greater focus on preventing crime by addressing issues such as inadequate housing and poor support services for young people.
Evans said many people get in trouble for breaching conditions of their release while facing a long wait for trial.
"Sometimes a lot of our young people, especially, will breach their conditions, thereby establishing a criminal record and ... the dockets are too long and it drags on for so long that it prevents them from improving their circumstances and accessing better education."
The 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission contained 18 recommendations to improve justice for Indigenous people. One called on the provincial and federal governments to "provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending."
Evans said Tuesday's meeting is a beginning.
"Hopefully it's a dialogue that will continue and reconciliation can happen."