By Miranda Leybourne
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Advocacy groups hope a new court program will reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in Manitoba’s justice system, while also offering better outcomes for offenders.
The Indigenous Court Work Program provides services for Indigenous people involved in the justice system to obtain fair, just, equitable and culturally relevant support. This includes translation services and assistance for victims and their families.
The province on Tuesday signed service delivery agreements with Southern Chiefs’ Organization, Manitoba Metis Federation, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Island Lake Tribal Council to transfer the Indigenous Court Work Program to those agencies.
SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said under the new rollout, workers will be present in court, will assist accused individuals with legal questions without giving legal advice and will also provide resources for community justice programming.
“We’re happy we’re going to see that actually roll out,” Daniels told the Sun.
“ It’ll add a lot of value to how the courts currently operate.”
Indigenous people continue to be jailed at younger ages, denied bail more frequently, granted parole less often and are more likely to be classified as high-risk offenders. They are also more likely to struggle with employment, community integration and having adequate family support.
Indigenous adults represent 77 per cent of all Manitobans in sentenced custody, 74.6 per cent in remand, and 69.3 per cent in other temporary detention, the highest rates in the nation after Saskatchewan, according to Statistics Canada. The rates of Indigenous youth who are incarcerated are also rising.
Daniels is confident that having Indigenous advocacy workers in court, with the program under Indigenous jurisdiction, will change those statistics.
“I think that they’ll create a better, more fair environment, and the accused won’t feel as sort of vulnerable in that position as perhaps they feel right now,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll have more confidence in the system and how it’s working.”
Transferring the program to Indigenous groups is a step toward truth and reconciliation, said Julyda Lagimodiere, minister of justice with the MMF. It will hopefully reduce recidivism as well, she added.
“It’s just knowing that you have people that are supporting you and holding you accountable as well and offering services that will help them make better choices,” she said. “We will hold people accountable, but we also need to give them tools to make better choices in life.”
The provincial and federal governments are supporting the transition with grants of more than $1 million annually for two years to the four organizations.
By providing support for culturally appropriate justice services and programs, Ottawa and Manitoba are helping to implement systemic change across the justice system, federal Justice Minister David Lametti stated in a release.
“The continued delivery of Indigenous court worker services in Manitoba will support our efforts to address systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples and improve access to justice and fairness in our justice system,” he said.
According to provincial Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, the transfer of the Indigenous Court Work Program was initiated in 2021 and is based on feedback from Indigenous communities. It’s also part of the province’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action and Manitoba Justice’s Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy.
Miranda Leybourne is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the
BRANDON SUN. The LJI program is federally funded.