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The Supreme Court's public efforts to hear diverse perspectives could leave a lasting impression in Manitoba's history, Indigenous leaders say.
As the nine judges from Canada's top court prepare to meet Friday with First Nations, Métis and francophone groups in Winnipeg, some say the first-of-its-kind consultations could help the Supreme Court understand the particular needs of each of those constitutionally-protected groups.
"I think history will one day show that this was a wise decision by the Supreme Court to come out and meet regular Canadians out there, including us as the Métis Nation in our homeland, that it's the right thing to do and it's about time it's done," Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand said Thursday.
Although he acknowledged some may criticize the court's move to hear cases and meet people in Manitoba — its first-ever stop outside of Ottawa — as posing a danger to judicial independence, Chartrand said he respects the court's "boldness" and doesn't want to say anything in his meeting with the judges that could influence future court decisions.
"We, too, are cautious. We may have cases that will eventually head before them, and I don't want to compromise any judge, or the chief justice and judiciary that sits at the Supreme Court of Canada, (to) be affected by an action or a meeting that took place here in Manitoba."
When questions about Indigenous rights have come up during the Supreme Court justices' public events this week, they have been left largely unanswered, considered too political for the judges to weigh in on.
That's for good reason, says Canadian Bar Association vice-president Brad Regehr, an Indigenous lawyer practising in Winnipeg.
"In order to have a fair hearing, you need to know that the judges are independent and they're impartial, so they can't come out and opine, give opinions on specific topics, because those are likely coming before them (in court). But they want to understand perspectives while remaining impartial," Regehr said.
Unlike judges in trial courts, Supreme Court justices usually only hear from lawyers, not from everyday Canadians.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said he is looking forward to meeting with them. He wrote to Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner more than a year ago to ask for a meeting, and was told a visit to Manitoba was in the works.
"Since they're the highest court, I simply wanted to offer them an opportunity to engage with them in an innovative way as opposed to sitting in a courtroom with them," Dumas said.
"The decisions of the Supreme Court are far-reaching, and they have to be mindful of our role in the country, and they have to keep in mind that we're all here to stay and working towards achieving reconciliation and better lives for everybody."
The historic visit hasn't included any treaty land acknowledgements spoken by any of the judges, although such acknowledgements have been offered by local residents at events the judges have participated in this week.
"For the judges, I don't know that it would be a political statement, but certainly some might think that it's a legal statement, that they set the law in terms of the land, and that it does have implications for any potential cases that come forward, so I think from a legal perspective, they're being cautious in terms of what they do say," said Loretta Ross of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a non-partisan organization.
There's an opportunity here, she said, to expand the perspectives of all judges — even when it comes to how they think about their own impartiality.
"Does being educated about a First Nations perspective and world view compromise their impartiality, and if so, how? That's a huge question, in terms of how do they make their decisions and what do they base it upon?" she said. "Coming out here and meeting with First Nations people and getting a better understanding of First Nations perspectives with respect to treaty, does that affect impartiality?
"In my view, it would only help to broaden your perspective."
Any attempt to give people a sense of the importance of reconciliation is welcome — in the legal community and beyond, and all of the leaders who spoke to the Free Press said they were honoured the Supreme Court chose to visit Manitoba. But there's still a lot of work to do, said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization.
"I think that's symbolic and I think it's important, but I think we need to move forward to having First Nations court systems. Like our own restorative community court systems that are outside of that (existing court system), and I think that the sooner we can do that, you'll see a much more improved understanding of people's situations."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.