CANADA

Native justice on trial

Witnesses claim the police are prejudiced

PEETER KOPVILLEM November 28 1988
CANADA

Native justice on trial

Witnesses claim the police are prejudiced

PEETER KOPVILLEM November 28 1988

Native justice on trial

CANADA

Witnesses claim the police are prejudiced

The account represented the kind of testimony being presented to Manitoba’s two-man public inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People. On Nov. 1, in the small community of Gods Lake Narrows, 600 km north of Winnipeg, Margaret White appeared before Associate Chief Justice Alvin Hamilton of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in Brandon and Associate Chief Judge Murray Sinclair of the provincial court in Winnipeg to describe the events of a night in September, 1987.

The native woman said that on Sept. 9, 1987, she called the RCMP for assistance after her two sons began arguing.

But although the local detachment was only 1.2 km from her house on the reserve, officers did not arrive until an hour later—half an hour after White’s younger son had shot and killed his brother, 23.

Said White: “What that

seemed to say to me is they take their time when answering our calls—and they don’t think much of Indian people.”

Since the travelling commission began hearing testimony in mid-September, more than 300 people, most of them natives, have stepped forward in 10 communities. In often highly charged testimony, they have complained about what they say are racist judges, insensitive police, lawyers who pressure accused people into pleading guilty and a court system that ignores the problems of people living in isolated communities. At the same time, the $1.52million provincially funded commission has become involved in a confrontation with the government of Conservative Premier Gary Filmon. Earlier this month, the judges called on Manitoba to provide funding to native groups to enable them to prepare detailed recommendations for change. But provincial officials have declined to produce additional funds because, they say, the financing already committed to the commission is adequate. Added Attorney General James McCrae: “Some people have suggested that our level

of funding is somewhat generous.”

Former NDP premier Howard Pawley established the commission on April 17—nine days before Filmon’s Conservatives defeated his government—as a result of events that had angered natives and multiplied accusations

that the legal system discriminates against Indians. In one incident, Winnipeg police Const. Robert Cross accidentally shot and killed a native man during a scuffle on March 9, 1988. Cross had approached the man because he apparently fit the description of a suspect in a car theft—despite Cross’s knowledge that fellow officers had already apprehended a suspect. The man he killed was John Joseph Harper, 36, the executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council. An inquest subsequently cleared Cross of any wrongdoing, but the events angered native leaders who clearly felt that the death had been §f unnecessary.

I Only four months earlier, a £ sensational trial of two men in I The Pas, 700 km north of ? Winnipeg, had concluded t with the conviction of g Dwayne Johnston for the i murder of Helen Betty Os-

borne, an 18-year-old native girl. In 1971, Osborne had been brutally raped, then stabbed to death with a screwdriver. The other man was acquitted, and a third received immunity in return for his testimony. Members of native groups said that they were angered by the fact that it had taken 16 years to bring the men to trial—despite evidence that many local residents had long suspected them.

In the two months of hearings so far, many of the witnesses appearing before the judges have claimed that the legal system often treats natives with disregard. Among the problems that they say exist: an alleged lack of sensitivity by police officers toward natives. Edward Langevin, a white man who works for a child welfare agency in Dauphin, testified that RCMP officers once told him that “child abuse is culturally appropriate among natives.”

Some witnesses have also complained about the legal difficulties encountered by natives in remote communities. It costs $240 for the round trip for members of the Gods River Band, for one, to fly the 40 miles to appear in court in Gods Lake Narrows. Said band member Eddie Ross: “If a person knows they are innocent and can prove it by having a witness present, they have to pay for the witness to go to the Narrows to testify. It is often easier to plead guilty and pay a fine if it is not too serious.” And others charged that lawyers do not try hard enough to explain legalities to natives. When the commission visited the Porci tage la Prairie Correctional Institution for Women—where 7 0 per cent of the I inmates are natives—one woman 5 serving a sentence for manslaughter “ said that her lawyer had advised her to û plead guilty, even though she did not understand what the term “manslaughter” meant.

Meanwhile, although the judges called for extra funding to native groups who want to present briefs to the commission, provincial officials have refused to comply with that request. “I do not want to be seen to be interfering with the inquiry by funding some groups and not others,” said McCrae. “We do not want to be seen to be trying to mould the message that goes to the inquiry.”

For many natives, however, the message is clear: native self-government is the only solution to the difficulties that Indians encounter in the justice system. Declared Oscar Lathlin, the chief of The Pas Indian band: “A lot of the problems would go away if you would only let us get behind the steering wheel and take control.” But as the two provincial commissioners try to travel to as many communities as possible before meeting the Oct. 1, 1989, deadline for their report, that is one solution that is clearly beyond their scope.

PEETER KOPVILLEM with DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg

DOUG SMITH in