An all-Indigenous jury for inquests into the recent knife rampage in Saskatchewan is a positive step, but many more justice reforms are urgently needed, says veteran Saskatoon lawyer Donald Worme.
Worme, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission lawyer, has been involved in dozens of investigations, including examining the chilling deaths of several Indigenous men in and around Saskatoon that implicated police more than 20 years ago. .
Saskatchewan Chief Coroner Clive Weighill announced inquests into the deaths of 12 people linked to the recent rampage, including prime suspect Myles Sanderson. Weighill said he would like to see Indigenous-only juries for the inquests, which will likely take place next year.
Worme welcomed the announcement, but said the justice system as a whole remained racist at all levels. He said justice requires more than juries or Indigenous police forces – it requires a fundamental change in the power structures, methods and intent of the justice system.
CBC reporter Jason Warick spoke with Worme Thursday afternoon at his office in Saskatoon, which sits on one of Canada’s first urban reserves.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On Chief Coroner Clive Weighill saying he would like to see all-Indigenous juries for James Smith Cree Nation inquests:
Worme: Well, I think Coroner Weighill was just stating the circumstances of the law that currently exist and have existed in this province for a very long time. That is, a jury should be chosen from the community that supports the impact of the events to be examined. It should be a jury of your peers.
The fact that he even has to mention that, I think, really highlights the fact that the law has not been applied fairly.
Consider virtually all jury trial cases where there is a non-Indigenous accused and an Indigenous victim, such as the [Gerald] Stanley case. Every individual that was potentially Indigenous – you just had to be darker than the next one – and you weren’t on the jury.
What does that tell you? I think that tells us that Lady Justice is not blind, at least when it comes to indigenous people.
I think it’s troubling that we even have to have this discussion.
On racism in the justice system:
Race issues infect the justice system as a whole. It’s not a secret. The courts have recognized this. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized this.
These stereotypes applied against Indigenous peoples continue to harm Indigenous communities. Why is this objectivity the exclusive domain of whites? Watch the comments that followed the nomination of Madam Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin, who went to the Supreme Court of Canada last month.
The comments were “Oh, she better not sit on native cases.” Why? Is she biased, but it’s not the other way around [for white judges].
On Indigenous-led reforms:
Over the last 35 years of my career — and there have been many before me — there have been calls for an aboriginal justice system.
Coroner Weighill’s proposal for Aboriginal jurors is not a solution to the problem. It ignores the fact that it should be an aboriginal process all the way through. Would it be different? Well, I don’t know because we never had that opportunity.
I argue that it would be different because of the principles of restorative justice that we talk about when we think about what a justice system might look like.
It takes the catastrophic events that happened [at James Smith Cree Nation] even have a discussion about aboriginal policing.
We have the answers in our community. We have people in our community who have embraced these principles and are able to bring about realistic change in our communities.
On the urgency of change:
Aboriginal people will not stand idly by. We can’t wait. We no longer have the luxury of time and these events will not stop happening.
Indigenous juries will not solve the problem on their own.
I’m troubled that my new grandchild is inheriting this system and that I haven’t been able to make the kind of changes our communities need.
Even as a lawyer, people always take me for the accused.
Even now, I temper what I say because I don’t want to be surrounded by these stereotypes. I don’t want to be the angry Indian.
Do I want to be optimistic? Absolutely. But it’s troubling and extremely frustrating to try to shake things up a bit.
The system was created for white people. It was created to oppress indigenous peoples, to remove us from our lands and resources. There is no doubt about it.
The institutions that were complicit in this, they continue and they are still bound by the same stereotyped thinking inherited from the 18th century.