Members of the Sandy Lake First Nation gathered at the Youth Centre on the evening of Nov. 13 for the opening of a two-day presentation on the role of jury members and an explanation of how coroner inquests are conducted.
The workshop was put together by a team from the Nishnawabe Aski Nation, including NAN former deputy grand chief Terry Waboose, Sam Achneepinescum, Julian Falconer, NAN legal representative, and lawyer Meaghan T. Daniel, both from Falconer LLP. There was also an observer from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, Jodie-Lynn Waddilove, and John Cutfeet and Jerry Sawanas, who attended in the role of translators.
The lack of Aboriginal representation on juries has, until recently, been largely ignored. Although requests for jury duty have been sent out to First Nations communities by letters addressed to chiefs and councils to be distributed to community members, they are perceived by many recipients as threatening. Misinterpretation of the document’s wording has resulted in a lack of participation.
At present, there are 12 inquests that are unable to go forward, including the one to examine the mysterious deaths of seven students who attended school away from home in Thunder Bay. They all came from northern communities to further their education.
Five died in similar circumstances, their bodies recovered from the McIntyre or Kaministiquai rivers. The manner of their deaths have led to speculation and hastened the need for inquests.
The urgent need for First Nation jury representation was highlighted in a report put forward by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, who was appointed in August 2011 to examine First Nation representation on Ontario jury rolls.
Upon its release, the report was followed up by the government and wheels were set in motion to gather a team to visit northern communities.
Following a closed meeting with Chief Bart Meekis and council in the afternoon, representatives adjourned to the centre for dinner, which commenced at 7 p.m. with a prayer said by Elder Adelaide Meekis. Waboose then explained “The issue we are going to talk about to you is the jury role with respect to inquests. That is our purpose here. But more importantly it is to tell you about the process, the background of why we are here and also to ask for your assistanceÖ we are asking for volunteers to serve on the inquest juries.”
He then introduced Falconer, who spoke of the role that jury members play in relation to coroners inquests and the need for First Nation representation on juries.
“The idea is to provide you legal information and legal advice, to answer questions and, most importantly, to try and give you the opportunity to decide for yourself that what we are discussing is a good idea. For far too long, key information that First Nations need isn’t given to them, respect isn’t extended. You get envelopes in the mail with her Majesty, the Queen on them and you are supposed to do what you are told and then they found they could not get jurists together because community members do not respond to that.
“The Justice System has not been kind to First Nations and the information circulars (provided on the night) are about trying to protect your communities and a coroner’s inquest is one way of doing this.”
He concluded, “They can’t convene 12 inquests in the north right now, because they can’t get juries together because First Nations are not on the jury roles and the juries cannot go forward without First Nation participation.
“There is a benefit in doing this, because you become involved on your terms, you make the decision… This is intended to create integrity in the system. It is intended to give community a voice on their own terms.”
He then invited members of the community to ask questions.
Among those in attendance was Lorene Morriseau, whose 17-year-old son Kyle’s body was found in the McIntyre River on Nov. 10, 2009. At the conclusion of the evening she commented, “I am hoping that things will work out to help the families get over the losses they have been going through. It’s been too long and it’s time to do something and I feel that by getting volunteers to appear on juries will hopefully get the inquest process moving faster.”
Casey Fiddler agreed. “I think it’s a good idea for the families and friends that don’t know anything about the inquests. I understand now what a jury does, it was explained well and I would consider doing jury duty.”
The second day started with a luncheon and a thank you speech from Chief Meekis, after which one of the sessions that interested community members was conducted by team members. At the close of the session, 48 people had volunteered their services.
Terrance Meekis, who is Justice Coordinator for the Sandy Lake Justice Committee and also runs the Band radio station, was one of the first to volunteer,
“I think it’s important for people to get closure and healing from the inquests. I got the emails and I was asked to coordinate the meetings so I thought it was important with all the inquests that are waiting to become involved. It took a bit of time to explain to some of the people what the process is about and once we broadcast on the radio we got a greater response. I feel positive that once the information sessions are completed there will be a speeding up of the inquest process,” he said.
Chief Meekis was pleased with the outcome of the information session. “I am very happy with the way the presentation went at the Band office, also at the radio station and here at the Youth Centre. It is an historic moment for Sandy Lake.
“It’s been 104 years since we signed the treaty in 1910 and we have been having injustice to our people since that time and we have been fighting the good fight to have justice for our people.... There is a movement to work together and to come up with a solution and a chance to work together.”
He added, “For my people to step up and become volunteer jurists for the coroner is great. So what I feel is if that happens there will be more justice for our people, which would make finding out what happenedÖ will be able to find out and put closure to these inquests for the families and I would hope that this leads to positive changes for the First Nations people and for the future of our children.”
Waboose was optimistic. “This is our first community so I think there will be a few things we have learned that will guide us as we go to the other communities.”