Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A part of the colonial system that has not been working well for Indigenous people in Alberta could be about to make a turn.
“Within our culture, when the chief judge wants something to happen, his judges take notice. The government takes notice,” said Provincial Court of Alberta’s Chief Judge Derek Redman in an exclusive interview with Windspeaker.com.
Last week, Redman unveiled the Alberta court’s first-ever Indigenous Justice Strategy, which lists 20 “responses,” as they are called. It brings together, in a comprehensive fashion, reforms the court has already undertaken, expands on some of those actions, and adds a handful of new endeavours.
The goal, as stated in the strategy, is for the court to “provide a culturally relevant, restorative and holistic system of justice for Indigenous individuals…”
“I sometimes say to myself, ‘Will this really make a difference?’ The problems Indigenous people encounter on a day-to-day basis, I’ve heard many stories and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s a big puzzle that has to be solved and I fully recognize that we are one court in a province,” said Redman.
“I’m not expecting this is going to change the world. But I’m hoping it will be received as a genuine attempt to do what we should be doing.”
The strategy follows seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report on the legacy of Indian residential schools, which included almost a dozen Calls to Action aimed at the justice system.
The strategy follows years after the first trial in the violent death of Indigenous woman Cindy Gladue, which saw her disrespected in the court room. It follows years after another Indigenous female victim was thrown into jail to ensure her appearance in an Alberta court and was then transported to the court in the same van as the man who sexually assaulted her.
“Could (this strategy) have been done earlier? Absolutely, it could have been done earlier. Should it have been done earlier?... It should have been done earlier. On the other hand, it’s a long and winding road and I’m just glad we are where we finally are,” said Redman.
He points out that this is the first strategy of its kind to be implemented by a court in Canada.
Work on the Indigenous Justice Strategy got underway when Redman took up his position as head of the court in August 2020. Indigenous justice is a subject he’s been passionate about since he was growing up in southern Alberta, became a lawyer in 1982 and a judge in 2007.
He admits that his passion is among the “combination of things” that will be driving the new approach in the court’s way of interacting with Indigenous people.
Passion by other judges, or groups of judges, “who are moved to make (things) happen,” Redman says, have brought about other initiatives in the Alberta court system, including the first ever Indigenous court in Calgary (there is now also an Indigenous court in Edmonton), mental health courts and drug treatment courts.
He says that judges who bring about these changes often must overcome “tremendous hurdles and roadblocks. My experience is, once we do that, once we participate in that, it will often gain a certain momentum.”
Redman says his work on an Indigenous Justice Strategy has been met with support from those in the courthouse, Indigenous leaders and organizations, and from the two provincial justice ministers since the work began, Kaycee Madu, who was replaced by Tyler Shandro. He adds he would like to see the Alberta Ministry of Justice implement its own such strategy.
Everyone he spoke to, said Redman, felt that an Indigenous justice strategy was needed and “that’s interesting to me because it would be an easy thing to say, “No’.” Even though the cynics may view the positive response as people just wishing to be politically correct, Redman said, “as we know, there are a lot of people who aren’t politically correct.”
To prepare the three-year strategy, Redman worked with an advisory group of five judges, which included Indigenous judges Karen Crowshoe, Danielle Dalton, and Ivan Ladouceur. He also travelled to First Nation and Métis communities, when he could, to meet with leaders. Much of the consultation, however, took place with COVID pandemic gathering restrictions in place.
“I’m hopeful that this is gaining a certain degree of momentum that will cause a fundamental change in the system,” said Redman.
The strategy calls for the court to be more welcoming to Indigenous peoples by adopting Indigenous principles, such as continuing to allow the use of the Eagle feather for swearing in; making smudging inside courthouses possible; and providing interpreters in various Indigenous languages.
The strategy gives support to the quality and timeliness of the creation of Gladue Reports. These reports outline systemic factors that must be taken into consideration for sentencing of Indigenous offenders. A Tri-Court Gladue Committee is already in place doing this work.
The strategy calls for Indigenous people to be employed in the court system and opportunities for mentorship for Indigenous lawyers and students.
The strategy prioritizes education, training, and enhanced cultural competency for judges, justices of the peace and staff. Bench books specific to ongoing changes in Indigenous jurisprudence, such as bail, sentencing and Indigenous child protection, are to be prepared and updated.
The strategy calls for more pointed communication and meetings between those in charge of the court and provincial and regional Indigenous leaders, organizations, the Indigenous Bar Association, and leadership of the Native Counselling Services of Alberta.
Redman says it is not his intention for the strategy be put on a shelf and forgotten. He intends to hold the court accountable.
“In some way I will be measuring the ongoing contribution this strategy has made,” he said, with that measurement communicated through the report the court publishes every two years.
However, he admits, he has yet to determine how that measurement will be taken, and how to ensure it takes into account the impact the strategy is having on Indigenous lives.
As for how he will personally gauge the success of the Indigenous Justice Strategy when his term ends in 2027, Redman says it will be based on the nature of the justice system available to Indigenous people.
He wants multiple Indigenous courts to be in operation and restorative justice programs to be offered throughout the province. He also wants the Alberta court to be recognized for strong mentorship by Indigenous lawyers and students.
But it’s the creation of Indigenous justice centres that is his goal.
These centres, says Redman, would provide a place for Indigenous people to go before they become involved with the law in order to get help from Elders, counsellors, and social service agencies. The centres would also provide legal help and whatever supports are required.
Earlier this year, British Columbia, which is the only province with an Indigenous Justice Strategy (implemented by the government, not the court), opened Indigenous justice centres in three locations, as well as a virtual centre. These centres, a partnership between the BC First Nations Justice Council and local First Nations leadership, focus primarily on criminal law and child protection issues (the priorities set by First Nations leaders in BC). The centres also offer additional services based on community and cultural needs.
“I’m expecting, I’m demanding of the (Alberta) government that (Indigenous justice centres) happen. In my own way, I’m working behind the scenes trying to get (the government) to accept, in principle, that that’s a good thing and …I’m hoping within my term they will be starting,” said Redman.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.