11/24/2014 07:16 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

Aboriginal youth tackle jury under-representation at conference

In many First Nations communities across Canada, it’s hard to find a jury of peers for aboriginal legal cases. Some say the under-representation of indigenous people on juries is linked to their over-representation in prisons.  

Karla Kakegamic is from the remote fly-in community of Keewaywin First Nation, in northern Ontario. She told The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti that the fact that many First Nations people up north speak neither English nor French as a first language is just one of the barriers to becoming a jury member.

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Providing access to interpreters is one of the recommendations coming out of a three-day youth conference in Thunder Bay, Ont., called Feathers of Hope. The forum was held at the request of the Ontario Juries Review Implementation Committee. Participants, including Kakegamic, shared their experiences and ideas for improving representation on juries and proposed solutions to address barriers in the judicial system.  

Even though Kakegamic took part in the youth conference last week, she said she wouldn’t want to sit on a jury if she received a letter tomorrow requesting her to do so.

“I wouldn’t know how to go about that,” said Kakegamic, adding she does not understand the jury or the justice system enough to feel that she would do an adequate job.

Criminal justice classes for the public is another of the recommendations coming out of the conference. These classes should be made available to a wider public and not just be taught in schools, said Kakegamic.

“On the ground, in communities, particularly for young people in our communities, there isn’t a lot of knowledge about the justice community and its particulars, but what knowledge there is, is primarily negative,” said First Nations litigator Katherine Hensel, who was an intervener in the Clifford Kokopenace Supreme Court hearing involving aboriginal jury representation.  

“There’s a real sense of alienation and distrust that goes beyond our young people, that goes throughout our communities. And a real hesitance to engage yourself in the criminal justice system, whether it’s as a victim, a complainant, a witness and, of course, as an accused or an offender,”  Hensel told the CBC.  

That’s why the youth conference participants are recommending cultural sensitivity training for police forces, to “bridge that gap between aboriginal people and the policemen,” said Kakegamic.

Hensel adds that the sense of alienation and lack of participation seems universal across the country, whether on reserves or in urban centres.

“But what has to happen in each province … to solve the problem of jury representation of aboriginal people, has to be tailored to local circumstances, to local communities and the reasons for lack of representation,” said Hensel.

She doesn’t believe these issues will be solved in Kakegamic’s generation or even in the next.

“I think it is multigenerational thing, the problems with the system are endemic and are really reflective of the two solitudes in Canada between aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people,” said Hensel.

A complete report from the Feathers of Hope conference will be released.

Tune in to The Current Review at 8 p.m. Nov. 24 to hear more.