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BRIAN FRANCIS: Alarming lack of understanding

Brian Francis is chief of the Abegweit First Nation

(Guardian Photo
Brian Francis is chief of the Abegweit First Nation(Guardian Photo - GUARDAN FILE PHOTO

Ex-justice Wayne Cheverie’s lack of understanding as to difference between qualified and diverse is disappointing

I write further to Wayne D. Cheverie’s letter to the editor entitled “Comments without merit.” I had previously written to The Guardian in relation to the need for diversity and diverse perspectives when it comes to judicial appointments. I should say at the outset that my comments are not in anyway intended as an indictment of those lawyers who have recently been appointed.

I do not know the individuals, but trust that they were good lawyers and upstanding citizens. Further, the substance of my previous letter related to the decision maker responsible for the judicial appointments – the federal minister of justice – not the Judicial Advisory Committee (JAC). However, after reading the disturbing comments of Mr. Cheverie, I felt compelled to reply.

My deeply held belief that the court requires more balance when it comes to the perspective of the Indigenous Mi’kmaq was referenced by Mr. Cheverie as being “uninformed.” I can assure Mr. Cheverie that I am very well informed as to how the justice system has failed the Mi’kmaq of this province and the Indigenous Peoples of this country for decades.

He erroneously equates “qualified” with diversity. I do not question the hard work and dedication of the volunteers on the JAC in making recommendations based on the established criteria, but our justice system demands more than judges who meet the basic qualifications; it needs perspective. Recent appointments have promoted a gender balance on the bench, and I applauded that, but balance is not limited to gender.

The perspective of people with disabilities, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and yes, the Indigenous community must be reflected if the justice of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal in this province were comprised entirely of men, would Mr. Cheverie highlight the diligent work of the JAC and rely on the fact that the JAC held the successful applications in high esteem.

While he might not recognize it, this country’s treatment of the Indigenous population over the generations has been nothing short of appalling and disgraceful. As we strive to move toward reconciliation, it is imperative that individuals who truly understand the Indigenous perspective, culture, history, and those that interpret them. Not having an Indigenous perspective within the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government over the many years has had disastrous consequences.

As I stated weeks ago, I do not question the skills of the justices currently on the court. However, the court is still not representative of the diversity of the population it serves. Having judges rule on Mi’kmaq land claims or constitutionally protected the Mi’kmaq Aboriginal and treaty rights without an in-depth understanding of the Mi’kmaq point of view will continue to result in a justice system that is not truly just.

Mr. Cheverie’s lack of understanding as to the difference between qualified and diverse is disappointing, but not surprising; it is all too common in a system grounded in colonialism. However, the fact that the chair of the JAC and former judge characterizes the lack of diversity concerns as “uninformed”, “groundless”, “unfounded”, “without merit” and an “affront to the committee” is disconcerting. Defending the diligence and independence of the JAC is fair; criticizing the First Nations for raising concerns about lack of different perspectives reveals a shocking unawareness by the JAC Chair and is an affront to the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression guaranteed by the Charter.

Mr. Cheverie’s final point is that the judges will take an oath to uphold and apply the law in a fair and dispassionate manner in keeping with the long tradition of judicial appointments in this province and across this country. This is undoubtedly the same oath that judges have taken as a critical part of a justice system which, in my lifetime, has refused to allow Indigenous people to vote, did nothing to prevent the tragedy of residential schools or ‘Sixties Scoop,’ and stood idly by as the government undertook cultural genocide.

History has firmly demonstrated that “qualified” judges who swear an oath will not allow Indigenous community to move forward on an equal footing. Reconciliation will not be possible until enlightened views, awareness and balanced court have become the norm.

-Brian Francis is chief of the Abegweit First Nation

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