An “ecology of exclusion”: Indigenous people’s experiences of the justice system

At the most recent meeting of the A2JBC Leadership Group on October 27, 2020, we heard Indigenous leaders, lawyers and academics speak powerfully about how Indigenous people experience the justice system. The meeting focused in particular on “micro-discriminations” or “micro-aggressions”, which are the myriad ways (some not “micro” at all) that society’s racist prejudices are conveyed to Indigenous people, and the extraordinarily damaging effects.

Ardith Walpetko We’dalx Walkem, QC explained that in order for Indigenous people to be able to access the justice system, we—as system leaders— need to address the harmful beliefs that adhere to Indigenous people as they interact with the system (or prevent them from doing so, as the case may be). Micro-discriminations can include things like a compliment that implies an expectation of lesser intelligence or abilities (e.g. “you’re very articulate”); skepticism that implies Indigenous people are less worthy of belief or attention (e.g. eye rolling or ignoring); or differential treatment that implies Indigenous people present risk or danger (e.g. singling out an Indigenous person to provide identification before accessing a service). Together these form what Ardith calls an “ecology of exclusion” that can obstruct an Indigenous person’s ability to participate in the justice system and to share information or turn to the system for much-needed help with legal problems.

Ardith authored the ground-breaking Expanding Our Vision: Cultural Equality & Indigenous Peoples Human Rights, providing the BC Human Rights Tribunal with broad findings getting to the heart of why Indigenous people have so rarely turned to the tribunal with their experiences of discrimination. The report is a call to action with recommendations not just about making the tribunal more accessible but for creating structural changes as well. I urge everyone working in the justice sector read this report carefully, as the recommendations are relevant to all of us.

I can’t do justice to the contents and presentations at the Leadership Group meeting in this brief blog post, but I want to commend all of the participants who so generously shared their wisdom and experiences, a process that no doubt takes an enormous emotional and spiritual toll. It is heartbreaking to hear how the justice system has not believed you and has failed you. We need to do better.

I am inspired to hear more from academics like Dr. Sarah Morales about how Indigenous laws can co-exist with the common law to create better outcomes for Indigenous people. I commit to look inward at myself and at my organization to consider what changes I can make to create a justice system that Indigenous people find welcoming and effective.