First Nations must have a seat at the table

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THERE are meetings going on behind closed doors that are critically important to how justice will be delivered in Manitoba, including for First Nations. These decisions will affect real people, families and communities for many years to come.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/03/2020 (940 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THERE are meetings going on behind closed doors that are critically important to how justice will be delivered in Manitoba, including for First Nations. These decisions will affect real people, families and communities for many years to come.

The management team of Legal Aid Manitoba and justice department officials are deciding how to implement the province’s “Review of Legal Aid Manitoba”, written by Allan Fineblit, a lawyer and former legal aid executive director, which was released last month.

Two-thirds of all legal aid clients are Indigenous, yet the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was not consulted in the creation of this report, and is not included at the decision-making tables. As we seek, collectively, to carve pathways toward reconciliation, this is a profound disconnect.

This week, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen received his mandate letter, which charts the way ahead with several bullet points that warrant deeper scrutiny. He is to: “Enhance the provision of legal aid to ensure it delivers on its core mandate to efficiently provide legal services for those who can’t afford them; and transform support for the Public Interest Law Centre to secure its independence from government.”

The days of designing systems that are imposed on First Nations without consultation and consent must end. It is a flawed, one-way process that does not work. Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have each produced groundbreaking reports which conclude that First Nations people must be at the heart and centre of all decisions which impact their lives. Their recommendations also emphasize the importance of supporting First Nations institutions and laws.

As a direct result of the damaging impacts of colonization, First Nations continue to be over-represented in Euro-Canadian legal systems, including justice, child welfare and social assistance. Our goal is to revitalize First Nations laws; however, in the short term, legal aid plays an essential role in this transition, in representing First Nations citizens in the courts.

If we were invited to provide input into the changes ahead, we would tell legal aid’s management team it is time to understand their clientele more definitively. “Indigenous” is a catch-all phrase; we need data on how many of those seeking legal help in Manitoba are First Nations people. Each brings different life stories and needs into our courtrooms, and that must inform the shape and delivery of our legal aid system.

We would also tell Minister Cullen that access to justice goes beyond the individual. Within legal aid, the Public Interest Law Centre has operated for almost four decades to challenge unjust laws and biased policies. It has won significant victories on behalf of First Nations and other groups, including people with low incomes, and in the process, has strengthened Manitoba and provincial institutions.

The idea of a PILC that is independent of government is a good one, but only provided it receives the necessary resources and financial support to continue serving Manitobans. Untethering PILC to float aimlessly around would be 10 steps backward for human rights, reconciliation and the value that binds all Manitobans: fairness.

We hope Manitobans want to live in a province where everyone can achieve their full potential, regardless of their ancestry or socio-economic background. Sometimes that requires a champion, like PILC, that can get binding, legal results.

The assembly strongly asserts that the importance of the public interest law service, which is accessible to First Nations, must be respected; it is the only legal avenue that represents the collective, rather than focusing on individual grievances. For so many years, the term “public interest” was used to exclude First Nations; PILC is a way the Manitoba government, regardless of which party is in power, demonstrates the importance of including First Nations voices.

We are at a crossroads.There can be no viable justice system in Manitoba without the full participation of First Nations. The Manitoba government is poised to create fundamental changes in our justice system, and that must begin by opening the back-room doors and inviting those directly affected by decisions to the table to participate in a respectful, transparent and inclusive process.

Arlen Dumas is Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which represents 62 First Nations.

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