The Canadian criminal justice system has failed Indigenous peoples, said the Honourable Tony Mandamin during his keynote on Tuesday, Mar. 3, a presentation which was a part of the Indigenous Law Speaker Series.

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Justice Mandamin speaks with authority, backed up by 40 years of experience working as a lawyer within Canada. Photo by Benjamin Hollihan.

Justice Mandamin stated that the worldviews between the Euro-Canadian sense of ‘Justice’ and the “Sacred Teachings,” the traditional framework upon which Indigenous peoples from across Canada must adhere to. The Sacred Teachings are Honesty, Bravery, Love, Respect, Humility, Truth, and Wisdom. The Honourable Mandamin believes that it is in these teachings that the fissure between the two justice systems exist.

“The Sacred Teachings are all positive instructions,” said Honourable Mandamin, in contrast to the Canadian criminal code, which all follow a ‘thou shalt not’ structure.

The Honourable Mandamin is not alone in his claims that the Canadian criminal justice system is largely incompatible with Indigenous peoples. During his presentation, he cited a quote by Michael Jackson, a lawyer and Professor Emeritus at The University of British Columbia: “the overrepresentation of Native peoples in our prisons…is colonization.”

This failure of the Canadian justice system is a quantifiable claim. In an article published by the Office of the Correctional Invesigator on January 21, 2020, it was found that “ proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30%…while accounting for 5% of the general Canadian population.”

In order to reconcile this issue which firmly holds its roots in colonialism, The Honourable Mandamin said, we must focus on Indigenous Restorative Justice. This is a concept which focusses on rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than punishment and recognizing Indigenous jurisdiction in legal matters. This includes institutions such as the Saskatchewan Cree Court, in which Cree or English may be used at any time during proceedings. “If we are going to talk about healing, we need to do it in our own language,” said Honourable Mandamin.

Justice Mandamin emphasized that a key issue is the concept of admission. When admission occurs in the Euro-Canadian system, there still must be full court proceedings. When admission occurs in Indigenous justice proceedings, it is the first considered the first step of restoring wrongs, similar to the function of sentencing.

The Honourable Mandamin, who served as the Provincial Court judge in the Calgary criminal division of the provincial court and has headed up several Indigenous Peacemaking Justice Initiatives.

The event was hosted in part by the Indigenous Law Students’ Association. Kienna Shkopich-Weddell, the Speakers Series Chair, believes that another way to help solve the issues that the Canadian criminal justice system has imposed on Indigenous people is to host events like these. “There are people in the legal community, students too, who have never been exposed to these topics. It’s important to have an understanding of how the law impacts Indigenous people.”