Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp

By Rose Adams

Tansi/Ai’!

On May 5th, I arrived in Saskatoon, at the heart of the Canadian prairies. I had never been to Western Canada before, so the flat lands of Saskatchewan felt very exotic to me. Two days after my arrival, I began my internship at the Native Law Centre, at the University of Saskatchewan. (On another note, the University of Saskatchewan’s campus is gorgeous but incredibly large – I still get lost in it. And to my bewilderment, I have heard some UofS students complain that it is too small. They should see some of the McGill buildings, squeezed between office towers in downtown Montreal!) The Native Law Centre, a department within the College of Law that has its offices in the Law Building, was founded in 1975 by College of Law Dean Dr. Roger C. Carter to “facilitate access to legal education for Aboriginal peoples, to promote the development of the law and the legal system in Canada in ways which better accommodate the advancement of Aboriginal peoples and communities, and to disseminate information concerning Aboriginal peoples and the law.”[1]

I quickly found out that the time at which I came to the Centre was special for two reasons. The first one jumped at me minutes after I set foot in the Centre: it was the first day of the NLC Summer Program, an intensive, 8-week Property Law course to prepare the 52 future Indigenous law students to attend law school in the fall. There was a whole welcoming committee for them and opening ceremonies and lunches followed for the week. The second reason was more of interest to me (not that I don’t like law students and free lunches): the Centre was ongoing a restructuring and revitalising process, which meant that many initiatives of the Centre began around the time that I arrived. Most importantly, as a means of Indigenizing it, the Centre was given the Cree name Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp, meaning law lodge or law tipi, while I was there.  I was assigned to do a few things (summaries, research…), but mainly to one of the new projects, the Gladue Awareness Project.

Of course, I had learned about Gladue and its application to the sentencing of Indigenous offenders in my criminal justice class, but I was under the impression that it was applied almost all the time an aboriginal offender was to be sentenced. When it comes to Saskatchewan, I was wrong. It is difficult to get numbers as to how many Gladue reports have been made in the province, but we have heard numbers ranging from 5 to 30 (30 seems to be the more realistic one). However, regardless of the amount of Gladue reports that have been written, the high incarceration rates of Indigenous offenders that the Gladue decision is meant to prevent are very much present in “the land of living skies”. It is estimated that Aboriginals constitute about 77% of the adult inmate population in Saskatchewan, while they represent about 16% of the total provincial population.[2] I was shocked by this: I wanted to understand why so many Indigenous people would be denied their freedom in Saskatchewan, more so than in other provinces, especially when considering the indecently high amount of dangerous offender designations among them. These numbers of course cannot be solely attributed to under-application of the Gladue and Ipeelee decisions. They speak of bigger problems, echoed in the two Supreme Court judgments: the inter-generational trauma created by residential schools, colonialism, lack of housing and overcrowded dwellings, substance abuse, FASD, loss of culture and family structure, and, most of all, lack of resources. But before tackling these problems, it is crucial to tackle their application to sentencing. Nevertheless, it becomes difficult to find ways to apply the Gladue factors to modify a sentence, when there is no programming available to place offenders in. I will address this in another post.

The Gladue Awareness Project aims to educate justice personnel and Indigenous communities as to the application of the Gladue and Ipeelee decisions, but also to create discussion as to how the issue of the over-incarceration of Indigenous offenders can be addressed. One of the ways the NLC did this was by developing materials – booklets and pamphlets – that educate about Gladue and that are to be distributed to courtrooms and Indigenous communities all over Saskatchewan. The main way though, is by preparing interactive seminars on Gladue that are currently and will be presented throughout Saskatchewan to those who participate in the criminal justice system. The discussions and solutions, suggestions proposed will be included in a final report, written by the Gladue Awareness Project Officer, Regina lawyer Michelle Brass. My role in this project has been to assist Michelle (a Saulteaux lawyer specializing in Indigenous and Environmental Law and an all-around amazing person) with editing the booklets and pamphlets, researching information and Saskatchewan cases and coordinating the seminars. I also got to help out at two of the seminars, which I will discuss in another post.

My experience so far in this project has been very eye-opening. I have learned a lot of things about project management and the application of the Supreme Court decisions by the Saskatchewan courts, but the most important things I have learned have been about the disparities that exist within a single country – my country. I did not think I would be shocked by the Indigenous realities in the Prairies, since I myself come from an Inuit community in Northern Quebec. However, while my community and other Inuit and James Bay Cree communities have certain social and justice programs – including a lot of Gladue reports and alternative justice measures – in place because of Land Claims Agreements, that is not the case in Saskatchewan. The optimism of the Supreme Court seemed out of touch with the reality of the Prairies.

Nevertheless, I also had a lot of positive experiences learning about First Nations and Métis cultures in Saskatchewan. Being Inuk, I did not know much about First Nations and Métis cultures, which are very different from Inuit culture. During the first weeks of my internship, I got to see grass dancers, a tipi raising and a traditional Plains Cree pipe-smoking ceremony that took place during the naming ceremony for the Centre. I got to sit in on a customary adoption seminar, during which First Nations elders discussed their experiences and the customary laws surrounding the practices. I also got to visit the traditional buffalo-hunting grounds of the Plains Cree and learn about many of their traditions (hunting, different properties of plants, tipi making, hoop dancing…) at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park just outside of Saskatoon. Most importantly though, I got to speak with people (students, professors, employees of the Centre…) from all over the country, which made me learn about their respective Indigenous cultures that I would have probably never heard of, had I stayed in Québec.

Grass dancer at the naming ceremony at the Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp Native Law Centre

Tipi raising – the before

Tipi raised – the after

Before I end this blog post, I would really recommend that you (the reader of this blog post) go check out the art of Cree artist Allen Sapp from Red Pheasant First Nation (just an hour and a half North of Saskatoon) C’est mon coup de coeur de la Saskatchewan!

[1] Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp Native Law Centre, “Native Law Centre”, (9 July 2018), online: <https://www.usask.ca/nativelaw/>.

[2] R v Halkett, 2016 SKPC 65, at para 61, [2016] S.J. No. 321 [Halkett].

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