The release of the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has brought the travesty of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people of Canada into sharp focus. As a lawyer working in Kamloops, I’ve seen first-hand how our First Nations people struggle with access to justice issues.
As I read the media coverage on the report, I was very taken with the collection of articles placed in the bentwood box. The story of the boy arriving with the suitcase of his favorite things lovingly packed by his mother, only to have it taken away, was heart-wrenching. But the sincerity and honesty of this ceremony gives me hope that this time things will change. The items in the box are symbols of the past harm but also represent undertakings by specific individuals and groups to repair the relationship.
The report talks about the training and education of lawyers. It points out that the courtroom experience of many of the survivors, difficult at best, was made worse by the lack of sensitivity shown by some lawyers. I am sad to say that sometimes this led to the survivors not receiving the appropriate legal service. The report includes a “call to action” addressed to the Federation, to ensure that lawyers receive cultural competency training, and another addressed to law schools in Canada, to include a requirement that all law students take a course in Aboriginal people and the law.
The report has identified serious issues about the treatment of Aboriginal people, and we will consider what more the Law Society can do in addressing them.
One of the things we have been doing is trying to level the playing field for Aboriginal lawyers. Following on the recommendations of the Aboriginal Law Graduates Working Group report in April 2000, we have taken several steps.
Our Aboriginal Mentorship program is intended to enhance the retention and advancement of Aboriginal lawyers. Our Aboriginal colleagues are underrepresented in the legal profession here in BC — in 2012, only 160 lawyers — a mere 1.5 per cent of the profession — were of Aboriginal descent, while First Nations people represent 4.6 per cent of our population. We are, and all lawyers should be, proud of the fact that this program is the first of its kind.
The mentorship program has seen year over year growth. In 2014, 22 junior Aboriginal lawyers were matched with experienced lawyers in mentor-mentee relationships. I encourage you to get involved in this program, and support the young Aboriginal lawyers in your community. If you need help, call me or call Andrea Hilland at the Law Society.
We have also made changes to our PLTC program. This included establishing an Aboriginal advisory panel to review curriculum and course material and incorporate Aboriginal legal issues, regular cultural awareness training for PLTC instructors, the development of Law Society policy regarding the treatment of historically disadvantaged groups, effective mentoring, and increased focus on the role of the Equity Ombudsperson in PLTC training.
We also encouraged a change to the content of the Constitution Law 100 course at UBC, to include Aboriginal Rights and Treaties in Canada, alongside material on the Charter and federalism.
The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has highlighted a terrible time in our history. Our Aboriginal friends, colleagues and neighbours remember this black time. We too must remember, and work together to build better understanding and make a more compassionate community.