The P.E.I. government is working to implement a program that could help Indigenous Islanders better navigate the criminal justice system.
The province’s most recent budget included a $100,000 allocation to work with the federal government to develop an Indigenous courtwork program. The program would see Indigenous individuals hired to help on- and off-reserve Indigenous people receive fair and culturally appropriate treatment within the legal system. Currently, P.E.I., New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only provinces without an Indigenous courtwork system.
Lori St. Onge, director of the Indigenous justice program with the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I., says the funding commitment is welcome news.
"That's something that we have been advocating (for)," St. Onge said in an interview.
"We see many Indigenous people going to court and not understanding the system."
St. Onge said many Indigenous people in P.E.I. often attempt to represent themselves, which often does not place them in an advantageous position.
Nationally, Indigenous people are highly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Despite representing only four per cent of the Canadian population, Indigenous people account for 28 per cent of admissions to provincial and territorial correctional institutions and 27 per cent of admissions to federal correctional institutions.
It is unclear what the degree of overrepresentation of Indigenous Islanders is within P.E.I.’s prisons. A recent progress report on the province’s implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted data collection about the cultural background of inmates is limited.
The same report said the province was in the “initial stages of exploring options” related to an Indigenous courtwork program.
A representative of the Department of Justice and Public Safety said the province is still negotiating an agreement with the federal counterparts related to the program.
“This type of program is often delivered by Indigenous organizations however, at this time, we cannot provide details on how P.E.I. will deliver ours,” said a representative of the province in an email statement.
St. Onge said the Indigenous courtwork program would be different from services such as legal aid in that staff would not necessarily be lawyers. But Indigenous courtworkers would have some understanding of the legal system and could refer individuals to legal aid services.
"It's basically to have someone hold your hand so the individual feels supported, feels that they're being understood and feels that they're accessing a service that is fair to them," St. Onge said.
MCPEI administers the community justice program in P.E.I., which provides community-based justice programming. Since 2018, the confederacy has been regularly retained by the Department of Justice and Public Safety to write Gladue Reports, which contain recommendations about appropriate sentencing for Indigenous people in conflict with the law.
However, other legal supports are needed on P.E.I.
St. Onge said MCPEI has been advocating for the introduction of an Indigenous courtwork system in the province for at least five years.
"This government definitely is showing an interest in supporting and helping to support Indigenous people through the criminal justice program," St. Onge said.
"We're very happy to see this in the budget."