Judith Kekinusuqs Sayers is the chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Ardith Walpetko We’dalx Walkem is the author of Expanding Our Vision: Cultural Equality & Indigenous Peoples Human Rights. Doug White III Kwulasultun is the chair of the First Nations Justice Council.
Cries for justice for Indigenous people killed by police or failed by the legal system are reverberating across Canada, from coast to coast to coast.
Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi were shot and killed by police in New Brunswick, only eight days apart. Brady Francis and Colten Boushie were killed and those who took their lives were acquitted. Tina Fontaine, Cindy Gladue, Everett Patrick – the names could fill a book.
It all adds up to a view that the justice and policing systems are fundamentally broken. The legal system is failing to hold accountable those who have killed Indigenous people. And it’s gone on long enough.
We need to pursue a new foundation for policing and the legal system that includes Indigenous peoples. The call for immediate action is one that all Canadians must share – but the change must be led by Indigenous people if we are to achieve real justice.
Government and police officials acknowledge the issue, but insist on continuing to investigate it – even as the recommendations of countless inquiries and commissions continue to sit ignored. Indigenous peoples, too, have solutions, many of them based in our laws, and we have already offered them in the past.
Notably, the Canadian government has failed to respond to the calls for justice of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry. Ms. Moore was killed after a “wellness check” on the first anniversary of that report being released, and so we carry the tragic knowledge that if these recommendations had been implemented, she might still be alive today.
These recommendations include the creation of a national Indigenous-led police oversight body, funded by Canada, with representation of all Indigenous peoples – one that also has broad investigative powers and accountability to the public. Right now, there is no such oversight role for Indigenous people, and without it we cannot have honest conversations about how systemic discrimination and institutional bias make Indigenous people unsafe in this country, especially from police.
We must establish a national protocol that sets minimum standards for all police investigations of serious violent crimes against Indigenous people. This would include special oversight for crimes against Indigenous women, children and two-spirited people, and include an accessible, trauma-informed and culturally safe mechanism to review case files and medical examiner or coroner reports where families question a loved one’s official cause of death.
We must redirect funding from the federal Department of Public Safety to Indigenous justice and other services that actually increase community safety. Committing long-term, reliable funding to Indigenous justice initiatives that recognize Indigenous laws and their jurisdiction will begin to untangle the underlying social causes.
We must implement a multipronged de-escalation strategy and no-carry weapons policy for policing Indigenous communities and for calls involving Indigenous-identified individuals. This could involve multidisciplinary trauma-informed teams that include Indigenous people as first responders on “wellness checks.”
Human-rights codes across the country must be adjusted to include Indigenous identity as a protected ground, and to recognize that many of the problems we face stem from pervasive bias and the systemic dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.
Finally, creating Indigenous courts at all levels that reflect Indigenous laws, and the infrastructure that comes with this, is crucial. That means building Indigenous justice centres, justice-oriented diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, as well as increasing Indigenous representation among judges, prosecutors, criminal lawyers, police and court staff. Gladue Reports, which can offer broader socio-historical context for an Indigenous person being sentenced to a crime, should be required; all Indigenous child-apprehension cases should have written documentation to lay out how Indigenous laws and cultural ways of keeping that child safe were considered.
These are immediate actions that can – and must – be taken. We don’t need to keep researching: As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki have all acknowledged and countless inquiries have documented, systemic racism persists in Canadian policing and legal institutions. Now, we need to collectively listen to the recommendations that have been made, time and time again.
A National Indigenous Justice Summit is under way to advocate for immediate action and to elevate these issues to government for a response. It represents just another offering of how calls for change that are being heard across the country can be answered. Only then can we know justice has been achieved.
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