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Aboriginal Justice Day perspective

Mino Giizhigad! February 26th is Aboriginal Justice Day. It is an important day as it provides us with a reminder of the historical and present relationship between Indigenous peoples and the justice system in Canada. This day started with JJ Harper of Wasagamack First Nation who was shot by Winnipeg police on March 9th, 1988.

Mino Giizhigad!

February 26th is Aboriginal Justice Day. It is an important day as it provides us with a reminder of the historical and present relationship between Indigenous peoples and the justice system in Canada. This day started with JJ Harper of Wasagamack First Nation who was shot by Winnipeg police on March 9th, 1988. Since then, Aboriginal Justice Day has worked to raise awareness around the systemic racism that exists in the justice system.

If one examines history, military and police have been a source of colonial presence among First Nations (Indigenous) peoples for some time. Alexander Morris was a main government negotiator in the Numbered Treaties. He was an appointed Chief Justice in Manitoba in 1872. He later became Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba from 1873 to 1878. He recorded the meetings and negotiations of the treaties. It was first published in 1880 but has since been republished. It is titled The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories including the Negotiations on which they were based (by Alexander Morris). In his record, it was recorded: “Military display has always a great effect on savages and the presence, even of a few troops, will have a good tendency” (pp. 32). These words were part of a letter written by Adams G. Archibald during the signing of Treaty 1 and Treaty 2, which are also known as the Stone Fort Treaty and the Manitoba Post Treaty. One might say that this presence was only for celebratory purposes in the making of treaty; however, a close and critical analysis (reading) would reveal that such a presence would also be domineering and pressurizing in nature. James Daschuk’s, Clearing the Plains (2013), is an informative read to history. Also, the Pass System was in effect until 1951 which made it illegal for First Nations peoples to leave their reserves without permission and pass from a government agent. If they left without permission, they could be arrested. A film on the Pass System can be found: http://thepasssystem.ca. Additionally, Many First Nations peoples’ sacred ceremonies were also outlawed until 1951. Katherine Pettipas talks about this in her book, Severing the Ties that Bind (1994). Parents who refused to send their children to residential schools also faced potential arrest. Thus, the justice system has not had a good historical relationship with First Nations (Indigenous) peoples throughout time. Today, many hold dialogue around Truth and Reconciliation as a means to repair the relationship between First Nations (Indigenous) peoples and Canada; but unfortunately, often times there is a tendency to pass by truths.

Currently, the world is seeing a dramatic shift with the onset of covid and movements in social justice. Having said that, social justice movements are not new. Movers and shakers have been raising awareness on various issues for generations including those like Big Bear, Poundmaker, Louis Riel, Buffy St. Marie, Elijah Harper, Maria Campbell, Alanis Obomsawin, Tasha Hubbard, and many more. Tasha Hubbard’s 2004 documentary, Two Worlds Colliding, sheds light on what is called Starlight Tours in which an Indigenous man was left in a field with -20 temperatures in Saskatchewan by police officers. This led to a judicial inquiry. The film can be found on the National Film Board’s website: https://www.nfb.ca/film/two_worlds_colliding/.

Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices today are raising awareness around Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. This led to a National Inquiry which has 231 individual Calls for Justice directed at governments, institutions, social service providers, industries and all Canadians: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/. And important work and calls for justice are also being done around MMIWG2S. Many monuments have been placed across Canada and United States to raise awareness and remember those lost – and the affected families seeking justice. Kairos website has more information on these monuments: https://www.kairoscanada.org/missing-murdered-indigenous-women-girls/monuments-honouring-mmiwg.

There is a deep history behind the socio-economic issues in First Nations (Indigenous) communities. In life and in education, the message is to remember certain historical events and days, but sadly, First Nations (Indigenous) peoples are often told to “forget the past and move on.” The past informs the present, including colonization, which is why it’s important to remember so that mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. And so that society, and the system, can come to know and understand the events that have informed the present.

On Aboriginal Justice Day, we remember. And we celebrate the movers and shakers of yesterday, today, and tomorrow with the growing numbers of Indigenous youth reclaiming their language and cultures while at the same attaining various forms of education that will help address issues such as systemic racism and racial justice. It’s change that everyone can take part in. The Truth and Reconciliation made 94 Calls to Action including 18 in the area of Justice (http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf). Here are a few:

(25) We call upon the federal government to establish a written policy that reaffirms the independence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate crimes in which the government has its own interest as a potential or real party in civil litigation.

(26) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to review and amend their respective statutes of limitations to ensure that they conform to the principle that governments and other entities cannot rely on limitation defences to defend legal actions of historical abuse brought by Aboriginal people….

(31) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to provide sufficient and stable funding to implement and evaluate community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending….

(36) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to work with Aboriginal communities to provide culturally relevant services to inmates on issues such as substance abuse, family and domestic violence, and overcoming the experience of having been sexually abused….

(40) We call on all levels of government, in collaboration with Aboriginal people, to create adequately funded and accessible Aboriginal-specific victim programs and services with appropriate evaluation mechanisms.

(41) We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal organizations, to appoint a public inquiry into the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls.

To learn more about the story of JJ Harper, read Cowboys and Indians: The Shooting of JJ Harper (1999) by Gordon Sinclair Jr. or watch the movie based on the book. Another important documentary is Nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (2019) which talks about the death of Colten Boushie: https://www.nfb.ca/film/nipawistamasowin-we-will-stand-up/. There are many reliable resources out there to learn more about Aboriginal (Indigenous) peoples and the justice system.

February 26th is Aboriginal Justice Day. A very important day, but always something to keep in our hearts.

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