Four organizations representing First Nations and Métis people in Manitoba are taking responsibility for the Indigenous court worker program, the provincial government announced June 29.
Indigenous court workers help people accused of crimes navigate the court system and provide support to their families. They also help courts and lawyers understand what resources are available in an accused person’s community and help ensure victims and their families are connected with Victims Services and other organizations.
“We understand that when these supports are offered at the earliest point possible it provides the greatest potential for connection to restorative justice programming,” said Manitoba Justice Minister Cameron Friesen at a June 29 announcement. “It helps [accused persons] understand what happens when they are charged and explains what they might go through as they move through the courts.”
A cost-shared agreement between Manitoba and the federal government will provide a total of about $1 million in grants to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimanakak (MKO), the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) and the Island Lake Tribal Council for each of the next two years, slightly more than what the province has spent on the program over the past few years. Friesen said this is the model in other Canadian jurisdictions and that the government no plans to reclaim the programs at the end of the current funding cycle.
“When two years is up we’ll re-sign with the federal government and keep going.”
Even if the funding is slightly higher than it has been, it is still inadequate, said NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine.
“Indigenous people who come into contact with the justice system deserve support to help them navigate the system and advocate for themselves,” she said. “But after five years of PC cuts, this program lacks the staff and the funding to deliver. Now the PCs are handing off a program that’s starved for staff with no promise of long-term funding and additional resources. If the government is serious about reconciliation, they need to provide more funding, staff and resources to this program so that there is a court worker in every community across the province.”
MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said he thinks having the Indigenous court worker program in the hands of Indigenous people will improve the status quo.
“It’s a very highly technical system and we need people that can break the [legal] language down into common language,” he said. “We have people who will not only understand the language but also the culture and be able to be of greater support because they know exactly where the individuals are coming from when it comes to First Nations communities.”
MMF justice minister Julyda Lagimodiere says the Métis approach to justice has never been just about the person who commits or is accused of a crime but also the family and greater community as well.
“This is a natural process for us but has been lost at times to our people when they interact with the criminal justice system.”
The Indigenous leaders and the justice minister all agreed that more needs to be done to help Indigenous people avoid getting entangled in the courts.
“We know there’s more work to do to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our criminal justice system,” said Lagimodiere.
Settee believes having Indigenous organizations run the court workers program is only a first step towards the eventual incorporation of more Indigenous knowledge into the courts, which he says have not served Indigenous people well.
“Young people get sucked into a system and then they never get out because there’s no restorative process in the system,” he said. “If we want to remedy the situate we have to appropriate indigenous culture into the justice systems because our systems worked for millennia upon millennia.”
Friesen said restorative justice is something the province is interested in, too.
“It is an area of shared interest and opportunity and focus for all of us to be working more on,” he said.