Truth & Reconciliation
Addressing the challenges arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings is one of the most critical obligations facing the country and the legal system.

Truth and Reconciliation Symposium: truth-telling and sparking change

The Law Society held its first Truth and Reconciliation Symposium on November 23 where participants shared their ideas on how the legal profession can address systemic biases against Indigenous people and how the Law Society can take action to facilitate reconciliation. More than 450 lawyers, judges, academics and representatives from legal and Indigenous organizations were in attendance.

The event opened with a Coast Salish welcome by Wes Nahanee, Squamish Nation cultural ambassador, followed by an introductory plenary by symposium co-chairs President Herman Van Ommen, QC and Indigenous lawyer Ardith Walkem to set the stage for the day.

Walkem introduced a video titled “But I Was Wearing a Suit" (available below), in which Indigenous lawyers voiced their experiences of discrimination and racial stereotypes. Their stories include being mistaken for clients by court staff and judges, being asked to leave the barristers lounge by other lawyers and having difficulty gaining after-hours access to the Courthouse Libraries. A common theme was being made to feel they do not belong in the legal profession. The video invited participants to consider the question, “If this is how Indigenous lawyers are treated in the legal system, what does that say about how Indigenous clients are treated?”

The dialogue continued as participants broke out into smaller sessions to discuss a wide range of topics, including biases in the practice of law, systemic biases, retention and advancement of Indigenous lawyers, legal aid, international legal standards, Indigenous laws, lawyer education and cultural competence.

At the afternoon key note, the Honourable Judge Steven Point told a number of personal stories to illustrate the ways bias and discrimination are daily occurrences for Indigenous people. He recounted the time city staff, unfamiliar with the Indian Act, came onto his reserve and started building a dam without ever speaking to the Band Council. He expressed grief over the high suicide rates of Indigenous youth and the violence experienced by his family members. Because of the trauma experienced by Indigenous people, he has witnessed that many of them are hesitant to speak to non-Indigenous authority figures, whether in classrooms or in court.

“Reconciliation encompasses the idea of trying to grasp how Aboriginal people experience the world,” Judge Point said. “The justice system has failed to understand Aboriginal people. It has failed to take into account the Aboriginal perspective.”

In closing, Judge Point asked each and every person in attendance to make a change within themselves. “Transformation and change doesn’t begin out there. It begins in here,” he said, pointing to his heart and head. “Individually, changing yourself.”

The symposium wrapped up with facilitators sharing thoughts from the various breakout sessions and suggestions from participants on how to move forward. President Herman Van Ommen, QC stated that the Law Society plans to release a report on the findings from the symposium, with a number of concrete initiatives that it can undertake next year. He further encouraged lawyers to continue their important work and keep the Law Society engaged as it continues its journey in the path towards reconciliation.

The Law Society extends a special thanks to members of the Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee, Continuing Legal Education BC’s program lawyer Teresa Sheward for organizing the logistics of the symposium and facilitators Patricia Barkaskas, Tina Dion, Leah George-Wilson, Andrea Hilland, Celeste Haldane, Melissa Louie, Maxine Hayman Matilpi, Dr. Bruce McIvor and Ardith Walkem.

 

But I Was Wearing a Suit: a mini documentary

Reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee

The following reports summarize the initiatives that are underway:

Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee

Benchers unanimously endorsed the creation of a permanent Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee at their July 8, 2016 meeting. The committee will provide guidance and advice to the Law Society on legal and justice issues affecting Indigenous people in the province, including those highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report and Recommendations.

Benchers’ Retreat

The Benchers devoted a full day at their annual retreat in June 2016 to a forum where they heard from Indigenous leaders and participated in discussions. This marked an important step in the Law Society’s ongoing development of an action plan. Themes discussed at the retreat include the Commission’s recommendations, Indigenous laws, international Indigenous rights, Aboriginal and treaty rights, child welfare issues, criminal law, restorative justice, victims services and First Nations Courts.

Read a summary of the retreat published in the Summer 2016 Benchers’ Bulletin.

Background

The Law Society urges lawyers to read the executive summary of the Commission’s report.

The Law Society continues to work on developing a full and impactful response to the Commission’s calls to action and developing a long-term action plan in collaboration with Indigenous people that effectively addresses the needs of Indigenous communities.

When the survivors of the residential schools system for Aboriginal children courageously brought forth their experiences in several thousands of court cases, it led to the largest class action lawsuit in Canada’s history. As part of the settlement agreement, the government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2008 “to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.”

The Commission spent six years travelling to all parts of Canada to hear the stories of more than 6,000 witnesses, most of whom were taken from their families and placed in residential schools. The Commission published its final report on June 2, 2015, which called upon all Canadians to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and included 94 recommendations for us to practise reconciliation.

Recommendations 27 and 28 speak specifically to the legal profession. The Benchers recognize that reconciliation goes beyond these two recommendations to involve a number of legal issues currently impacting Aboriginal communities, including:

  • child welfare;
  • overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody and the need for enhanced restorative justice programs;
  • the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls;
  • Aboriginal rights and title (including treaty rights);
  • the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • unresolved residential school claims;
  • and issues concerning jurisdictional responsibility for Aboriginal peoples.

The implementation of recommendations related to these issues largely depends on the engagement of lawyers.