Ontario Court of Appeal message on native justice must force change
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – The Ontario Court of Appeal chastises the Attorney General’s office for failing to give native people fair representation on juries.
Jun 18 2013. Editorial
Discrimination against native people in the Ontario justice system is a pervasive problem that has been documented for many years, yet nothing is done to fix it.
Studies and reports repeatedly cite the lack of aboriginals on juries when native people are on trial, even if their fate is supposed to be decided by a fair representation of society. Despite numerous warnings, the Ontario justice system too often turns a blind eye to the needs of native people. As a result, First Nations people are vastly over-represented in prison, often serving time for crimes that result in no jail time for others. It’s a travesty.
Now, a decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal may finally have the power to create a fairer judicial process for aboriginal people. As reported by Canadian Press, the court’s split decision quashed a 2008 manslaughter conviction against Grassy Narrows resident Clifford Kokopenace, while criticizing efforts by the Ontario Attorney General’s office to get on-reserve natives on juries.
As the court wrote, “The integrity of the process was fundamentally compromised by the inattention paid by the state to a known and worsening problem, year after year.” The Attorney General’s office had comprehensive knowledge of the problem, but in response did “very little.”
As a result of the decision, Kokopenace faces a second trial for the stabbing death of a friend. It’s will be up to a second jury — which is supposed to include on-reserve aboriginals — to decide his fate.
The decision sends a powerful call for fairness — and justice — to Ontario Attorney General John Gerretsen. He must take action. To do nothing once again would be a sign of an uncaring government. And certainly one at odds with Premier Kathleen Wynne’s constant efforts to express her respect for native rights. Hopefully those are not just empty words.
It is well past time for excuses about the complexity of jury selection or weak promises for change. Gerretsen — and Wynne — must ensure that the courts uphold the proper standards for jury selection when native people are facing judgment. It’s only fair.
Changes are not intended to let aboriginal people avoid justice, when deserved. It simply requires that they, like others, are judged by a jury that represents their community.
As former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci said in asearing report last February, the dearth of natives on Ontario’s jury rolls is a “serious and persistent problem.”
The Court of Appeal called Ontario’s efforts “sorely lacking.” It’s now time for the government to show exactly how it plans to fix that.
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