By: Student Legal Assistance
How can access to justice create space in our communities for marginalized groups? How can it enable people to heal and build strong communities? Student Legal Assistance (SLA) caseworkers have been asking these questions throughout the past several months.
Since 1979, SLA has opened approximately 47,000 client files providing pro bono legal information and representation to low-income individuals who are often from marginalized communities. When the pandemic struck, SLA’s daily operations could continue only if the clinic was able to pivot online. SLA rose to the challenge, opening over 300 client files in 2020, through which student caseworkers dedicated approximately 5,800 hours to clients who might otherwise have been unrepresented. Some of these matters have brought student caseworkers to the Calgary Indigenous Court (CIC) in providing legal representation to Indigenous clients.
Founded in 2019, the CIC aims to provide holistic, restorative justice to Indigenous individuals by acknowledging the unique challenges and circumstances of Indigenous people and providing culturally relevant support. Though all of SLA’s cases are a staunch reminder of the importance of access to justice, SLA’s experience with the CIC invites special reflection on how community driven approaches to justice can nurture and build communities.
Adam Drew, a Prosecutor with the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, currently serves the people of Mohkinstsis/Calgary through the CIC. In describing the role that the CIC plays within the community, Drew stated that the court acts as a bridge between colonial law and Indigenous law and that “it gives the justice system a chance to earn credibility with Indigenous people, as well as serving to protect the public and help our participants heal.”
One way that the CIC is helping its participants heal is through Healing Plans, which provide CIC participants with access to social services and cultural supports. Healing Plans are as unique as the individual for whom they are designed, and are created with input from the individual, Elders, community agencies, and members of the Soksipaitapiisin Case Management Table (CMT).
The Soksipaitapiisin CMT convenes weekly the day before the CIC sits, and is guided by Elders, Traditional Knowledge Keepers, and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary. It provides an opportunity for Crown and defence counsel, with the assistance of various social organizations, to find collaborative solutions that best support Indigenous individuals as they embark on a journey of healing.
Soksipaitapiisin means the ‘good life.’ In creating space for Indigenous perspectives in our legal system, while acknowledging the unique history and culture of Indigenous peoples, there is a unique opportunity to ensure access to justice does just that – help people heal and live the good life. The community-oriented approach to justice and healing that has been established through the Soksipaitapiisin CMT and CIC demonstrates that access to justice is not only an access issue. It can also serve as a bridge between cultures, helping people and communities heal together. In this respect, SLA caseworkers are privileged to play a role in assisting Indigenous clients on this path to healing.