Canada’s federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould told a crowd of hundreds of lawyers that the federal government is committed to improving relationships with indigenous people, as well as promoting diversity on the bench.
“Many of the issues we face as a country have a justice element to them, and which is why our government has embarked on a very ambitious agenda, and an effort to reform our justice system,” Wilson-Raybould said to lawyers from across Canada gathered in Ottawa last week for the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference. Wilson-Raybould was the conference’s keynote speaker Friday morning.
She dedicated much of her keynote address to calling attention to justice issues related to indigenous Canadians, and reaffirmed the concept of “re-building the nation-to-nation relationship.”
“It is a sad reality that many members of indigenous communities are among the most marginalized segments of our population, and that they are over-represented both as offenders and victims in the justice system,” said Wilson-Raybould.
Referencing her experience as a former Crown prosecutor in Vancouver’s downtown east side, Wilson-Raybould said indigenous men were often charged with non-violent property crimes, and then got caught in a “vicious cycle within the system” that led them to spending more time behind bars than outside.
“In fact, incarceration rates for indigenous people in some parts of Canada are up to 33 times higher than for non-indigenous people,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould pointed to a report from the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator that illustrated the gap. From 2005 to 2015, she said, the indigenous inmate population increased by 50 per cent, compared with the overall growth rate of 10 per cent.
She also noted that while indigenous people make up 4.3 per cent of the population, they represent more than 25 per cent of inmates. She also said that indigenous women comprise 37 per cent of all female inmates serving a sentence of more than two years.
“This is totally unacceptable,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould said administration of justices cases — such as parole breaches — make up more than 20 per cent of all Crown cases, and cost more than $700 million per year.
“We need to find ways to allow for more discretion in differentiating and treating administration of justice offences,” she said, saying resources spent on minor offences could be freed and used in “more meaningful” ways. Part of the new federal government’s approach is reviewing changes in sentencing that happened under the Harper government, and the use of discretion when it comes to measures such as restorative justice and sentencing circles.
Wilson-Raybould also addressed the issue of judicial vacancies across Canada. The day before Wilson-Raybould’s remarks, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin had told media “the perpetual crisis of judicial vacancies in Canada is an avoidable problem that needs to be tackled and solved.”
“I am very sensitive to the pressures that courts throughout the country are currently experiencing due to judicial vacancies,” Wilson-Raybould told the CBA audience.
“As you know, the government has already made the 15 appointments to trial and appellate courts and we are taking steps to both strengthen the process and to fill remaining vacancies, and I look forward to publicly announcing our intentions in this regard very soon.”
Wilson-Raybould also voiced a commitment to gender parity on the bench, and said recent appointments made to provincial Superior Courts reflect that.
In June, the federal government announced its first judicial appointments since taking office last fall. There were 15 appointments, including six in Alberta, five in Ontario, two in British Columbia, one in Quebec, and one in the Federal Court of Appeal.
Of the 15, 10 were women and five were men.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new process for judicial appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada, including a seven-member advisory board that will compile a short list for consideration. Any qualified judge or lawyer can apply, as long as they meet requirements that include functional bilingualism.
“Getting the balance right — whether in terms of gender, race or ethnicity — is extremely important and speaks to the need for fairness and accessibility,” Wilson-Raybould said.