Legal community should take lead on aboriginal issues: Rama GC

Legal community should take lead on aboriginal issues: Rama GC
Jeffrey Hewitt, GC of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, says ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ is the way to move business forward. Photo: Jennifer Brown
The general counsel for the Chippewas of Rama First Nation is calling on the legal leaders of Canadian companies, institutions, and law firms to think about how they can take action around recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation report and on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Speaking at the fourth annual meeting of Legal Leaders for Diversity held June 25 in Toronto, Jeffrey Hewitt spoke about the need for the legal community to “listen” and take action in light of the release and recommendations of the TRC’s report.

“Having listened to Justice [Murray] Sinclair, and knowing all of the commissioners, I would say one of the things we should try and take away from the work the commission has done is learning how to listen. Sometimes we are quick to leap to action especially on the social justice front,” Hewitt said. “One of the things Justice Sinclair has been talking about is creating a country that listens.”

Hewitt, who has joined the executive of LLD, spoke about the calls to action in the report and work that should be done to re-frame the relationship between aboriginal people and Canadians.

“If we listen, there are ideas about reconciliation that are older than the country within which we are trying to reconcile ourselves,” he said. “As lawyers from firms and in-house counsel, I have thought about what we might do as a call to action. How might things be picked up by all of us?”

Hewitt noted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is something Canada, along with New Zealand, the United States, and Australia refused to sign in 2007 when it was released.

“We have since changed our position, sort of — Canada said it would endorse it but unlike all the other international agreements we endorse under the rules of the Vienna Convention, this one is different — it’s just aspirational — something we might get to one day,” he said.

He talked about the importance of “free, prior, and informed consent” in the ability to move forward in a more positive way.

“We see so much controversy and delay and fighting around natural resources, oftentimes the press says that First Nation people stand in the way of progress. Why dispute these ideas before energy boards and environmental review panels? Why have Idle No More rise and take concern around water? It’s about free, prior, and informed consent,” he said.

Hewitt pointed out that it’s the same language that appears in the Equator Principles that all of Canada’s banks have agreed to follow. The Equator Principles is a risk management framework for determining, assessing, and managing environmental and social risk in projects.

“Yet when those words show up in the document for the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples, we’re not so sure. So we have some decisions to make about consistency and listening to ourselves,” he said. “Doesn’t free, prior, and informed consent also make business sense? Then there is less of a chance of a dispute later on. If there is such a thing as free, prior, and informed consent and we all get that then that idea of uncertainty of disputes and delay at the cost of business may be worth re-examination.”

Hewitt also called for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and the way First Nations women are depicted in popular culture, such as the Disney character Pocahontas.

He explained that when he teaches in schools he puts up a picture of fairy tale character Snow White in her long gown, shoes, her hair is pinned up and she is exalted as an ideal image. But the image of Disney’s Pocahontas wears a “tiny cloth, long hair flowing in one line, gown cut low and high on the hip, and barefooted.”

“We reinforce through these images ideas that aren’t so unsubtle. So the question is how many Pocahontas does it take before we start to be outraged compared to how many Snow Whites we get outraged by? One is the answer for Snow White. If there were almost 2,000 Snow Whites murdered or missing in this country I bet we would have a different response system,” he said. “Canada would not be viewed as a safe place for women to travel.”

Hewitt referenced the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation report around education and a call to action that law schools have a mandatory first-year course on aboriginal people and the law. Right now only the University of British Columbia has that requirement.

“Everybody in this room graduated without that, me included,” he said. “However education isn’t just for those in law school but also for the judges and all practitioners. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us in LLD to decide to create an education program for lawyers, for the firms and organizations we work for, and for staff,” he said.

He added that there also needs to be training on dispute resolution, conflict resolution in the workplace, and to educate on human rights.

“We have a lot of complicated problems and complicated processes we need to go through but I think the people in this room have the ability to make sure these ideas don’t go away. To call for that inquiry, to decide that the outrage we should feel with Snow White we should feel too for Pocahontas,” said Hewitt.

Ken Fredeen, the new chairman of LLD, acknowledged that lawyers can play an important role in moving the issues forward.

“I believe that getting it right on this issue is the future of Canada. We can either continue to bump along in points of conflict or come to a common goal to make this work. I think this group has a really big role to play in that,” he said.

He noted LLD recently provided a $3,000 scholarship to an aboriginal law student from Saskatchewan. The scholarship is part of a program to provide financial aid to students with physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments for undergraduate or grad studies at Canadian law faculties. The woman, who is from North Battleford, Sask., suffers from mental illness. Fredeen delivered the cheque to her personally and committed to being her mentor.

“As I see it, our shoulders are broad and when we started to do this we just broadened our shoulders because we knew we were getting into something with a personal connection,” Fredeen said. “I think we have some good opportunities — whether it’s law students with disabilities or First Nations issues, where I think we can bring a discussion that has never happened before. I think we can create change.”

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