Speech given by LAO Chair John McCamus at NAN-Wide Thunder Bay Justice Summit

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The NAN-Wide Aboriginal Justice Summit recently took place in Thunder bay from Nov. 19-21.

Below is LAO Chair John McCamus’ keynote speech* delivered on the evening of Wed., Nov. 20.

For more on the NAN-Wide Summit please see LAO Aboriginal policy counsel Fallon Melander’s recent LAO blog post, Reflections on the 2013 NAN-Wide Aboriginal Justice Summit.

*This speech will soon be available in French.

Grand Chief, Deputy Chief, Chiefs, Elders, Councillors and fellow delegates to this wonderful summit. I would like to acknowledge the territory of Fort William First Nation, the elders, chief and councils, community members, NAN, and NAN-legal for inviting me here to listen, learn, and speak with you today at this remarkable summit.




Let me begin by thanking Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation for including Legal Aid Ontario in this remarkable summit – there are 15 of us here from LAO – some from Toronto – some from the north – listening and learning more about the challenges you face and thinking about how we can support you in facing them.

The past tells us that NAN and NAN Legal and LAO can work together collaboratively and creatively and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so.

LAO’s partnership with the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation is a long one, as is our relationship with NAN Legal. As you know, NAN Legal was formed 23 years ago on the initiative of the NAN Chiefs and with the support of our predecessor, the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice in Ottawa.

Its objective was to increase access to justice and legal services in the NAN communities and it has done a remarkable job of carrying out that purpose.

Before its creation, there were no community legal workers, few regularly scheduled duty counsel and no ADR options like the Talking Together program. NAN Legal has done a splendid job of filling those gaps. LAO is proud to support NAN Legal by supplying funding for the certificate and duty counsel program and for employing various legal staff including community legal workers to assist qualifying band members in child welfare, family and criminal legal matters.

At an event like this, while it is important to shine a spotlight on the deficiencies of the current system, we should also reflect on and appreciate all that NAN Legal has accomplished in the past 23 years and, as well, to thank all of those who provided leadership to NAN Legal over the years and those who have provided services to NAN Legal’s clients during this period – it is noble work and I thank you on behalf of LAO for all you have accomplished.

As many of the interventions at this Summit emphasize, we are well aware of the perception that members of remote communities aren’t always well served by the current Canadian legal system. Here again, NAN Legal has demonstrated leadership. NAN Legal’s offerings of alternative community-based justice programs such as the Circle Process, the Talking Together Program and Restorative Justice are clear examples of NAN Legal successfully offering more avenues to justice for the Aboriginal community. Again, we thank you for your innovative leadership.

I well remember when I first became aware of NAN Legal. In the mid-nineties I was asked by the Attorney General to conduct a review of legal aid services in Ontario.

An important priority in such circumstances is to figure out what you don’t know and learn about it as quickly as possible. My team quickly established a research program which included studies on legal services within the Aboriginal communities.

Jonathan Rudin, counsel at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, wrote a fine paper on legal aid issues for aboriginals in urban settings.

Dr. Don Auger from Thunder Bay wrote a paper “Legal Aid, Aboriginal People and the Legal Problems Face by Persons of Aboriginal Descent in Northern Ontario”, - a remarkable piece of work done in very short order – for which I am still very grateful to Don. For me, reading Don’s paper was a remarkable learning experience and opened my eyes, really for the first time, to the issues we have been discussing at this Summit.

Don Auger began with a description of the demographics of the northern aboriginal population and then a tough-minded description of the socio-economic factors that are the root cause of many of the issues we are discussing. He then turned to the access to justice issues of this community. He identified the following problems:

  • Cultural relevancy of the legal system
  • Over-incarceration of aboriginals
  • Language and translation issues
  • Court administration difficulties
  • Bail
  • Availability of counsel

Sounds familiar? This was 18 years ago !!!

Notwithstanding the excellent work of NAN Legal, the service providers and the courts, many of these problems still persist today. Indeed, notwithstanding progress in some areas, some problems have become more intense.

Consider the impact of federal law and order reform legislation such as:

  • Mandatory minimum sentences
  • Reform of pardon and record suspension laws
  • Consider as well the thoughtless approaches to the bail issue that have become standard practice in the courts
  • Everyone is affected by these changes but their impact is heaviest on the aboriginal population.

Now we have Bill C-10 – the Safe Streets and Communities Act that threatens to undermine the ability of courts to order conditional sentences – so important to the Gladue and restorative justice sentencing models. Bill C-10 was persuasively skewered by Peter Kirby in the conference material, but it seems unlikely the government will be deterred by criticism of this kind, however forceful.

LAO’s collaboration with NAN Legal very much continues and the LAO Board is regularly briefed on developments here by Randy Ellsworth, Vice-President Northern Region and by others. The LAO Board also has an Aboriginal Issues Advisory Committee on which Mary Jean Robinson sits – she has been a member forever. Mary Jean is, of course, LAO’s Area Director for NAN Legal – and a very valued member of that Committee. Mary Jane has been a persuasive advocate of the interests of NAN clients in our deliberations. She is more than capable of sharp but constructive criticism – and she very much helps to keep us not only up-to-date, but up to the mark. There is a rumour circulating that Mary Jean is contemplating retirement in the near future – I find this hard to believe, but just in case, let me seize on this occasion to thank you publicly, Mary Jean, for your marvellous contribution to the NAN community over many years and your wonderful work for NAN Legal and LAO.

More generally, I can assure you that LAO and, in particular, the Board of Directors of LAO is very interested in and concerned about legal aid issues as they affect aboriginal clients and communities. Our interest in and understanding of these issues is enhanced by the presence on our Board of Nancy Cooper, a very valuable Board member and an aboriginal lawyer practicing criminal and family law in Timmins and the James Bay area.

We have made it an organizational-wide priority to provide efficient and effective services to the aboriginal clients in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner.

Throughout 2007-08, LAO conducted a series of consultations throughout Ontario with over 250 people including:

  • First nations, Metis and Inuit people
  • Aboriginal service agencies
  • Aboriginal political organizations
  • LAO staff
  • Private bar lawyers
  • Federal and provincial government staff

On what we could do institutionally to enhance the services we provide to aboriginal clients. This led to the adoption by the Board of an Aboriginal Justice Strategy 5 years ago:

  • Our objective is to improve legal aid services to all Aboriginal peoples in Ontario.
  • To achieve this we appointed an Aboriginal Policy Counsel to develop an annual strategy or 7 or 8 achievable goals.
  • Our first director was Christa Big Canoe (now at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto
  • Our current director is Fallon Melander (who is here at the summit and whom I hope you have met)

I won’t take you through the annual lists of initiatives, but highlights include:

  • Provided over 500 staff with 3 days of cultural competency training
  • Developed programs to ensure that the private bar and duty counsel representing Aboriginal clients were competent
  • Established a requirement that all criminal lawyers on our panel who represent Aboriginal clients must be familiar with Aboriginal-specific case law such as Gladue
  • Implemented a separate tariff for Gladue submissions.

We also began to invite Aboriginal clients to self-identify. We now have much better statistics and we are better able to ensure full provision of all services available to aboriginal clients. We now know that 55% of all legal aid certificates in the north are aboriginal – 12% province-wide. Aboriginals are, of course, a mere 2.8% of Ontario population. Over-representation of aboriginals in the justice system very much continues.

The Road Ahead?

  1. We will continue with the Aboriginal Justice Strategy in collaboration with the Aboriginal communities across the province creating local solutions to local problems.
  2. We will do our part to implement the Iacobucci Report recommendations
  3. With respect to the OCJ/MAG Joint Fly-In Working Group, we will do our part, in collaboration with our partners in the Aboriginal community, to determine how feasible it will be to implement the recommendations of the task force.
  4. We will work with the new law faculty at Lakehead and Dean Lee Steusser to determine how we can support their work. What a wonderful development this is for Thunder Bay and for the future of aboriginal legal services in the north. The faculty deserves your support
  5. Finally, of course, we will continue to work with NAN Legal to support it in its valuable work for the NAN community.

Let me end where I began – many thanks to NAN and NAN Legal for organizing this valuable Summit and for including me and Legal Aid Ontario on your program.

Thank you. Megwich.


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Director, Communications and Stakeholder Relations Group
Phone: 416-979-2352, ext.4782
Email: justesk@lao.on.ca and/or media@lao.on.ca