Emotional day as Law Society of Upper Canada listens
Tim Brody - Associate Editor
A gesture by the Law Society of Upper Canada to visit Sioux Lookout and listen and learn from Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors is earning praise from those who attended the meeting.
That meeting took place September 20 at the Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre.
“You have to learn from the Anishnawbe people if you want to know who were are,” Lac Seul First Nation Elder Fred Thomas told members of the Law Society. “If residential schools were a positive experience, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Lac Seul First Nation Chief Clifford Bull commented, “I will say that the system is flawed and I commend the Law Society of Upper Canada in engaging in meaningful dialogue with residential school survivors on how the current archaic system can be improved upon.”
Earlier this summer, law society treasurer Paul Schabas announced the appointment of a review panel to examine the way in which the law society and its tribunal address regulatory matters involving Indigenous persons, complaints, and issues.
A press release from the law society explained, “The review panel will identify issues and make recommendations on opportunities for inclusion of Indigenous perspectives.”
Ovide Mercredi, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was hired by the law society to be an independent reviewer and work in tandem with the review panel.
“The appointment of this review panel follows the law society’s experiences in The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Keshen, which raised questions about the society’s regulatory and hearing process in relation to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.”
Some residential school survivors and area leaders at the meeting expressed disappointment and concern to society representatives about the result of the disciplinary hearing for Kenora lawyer Doug Keshen.
“This discussion was because of the failure of the law society tribunal against Doug Keshen who faced serious allegations from the law society,” Sioux Lookout resident and residential school survivor Garnet Angeconeb said.
Schabas explained the creation of the review panel. “It did follow the conclusion of the Keshen case and followed our recognition that we need to do better in dealing with Indigenous issues and also our recognition that we want to respond proactively to the Calls to Action (from the) Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
He explained, “They’re going to be examining internally our processes as to how we deal with complaints from Indigenous people, about Indigenous issues, how we investigate those complaints, how we interact with the complainants and the lawyers, how we prosecute cases that deal with Indigenous complainants, residential school victims, and the procedures that should follow and how they should be adapted and adjusted to accommodate and reflect Indigenous customs and laws. And also to look at our hearing process and how our hearing panels operate and conduct themselves.”
He added, “The other part of it is to reach out, educate ourselves more broadly on Indigenous issues so that we can do a better job… to do that we’re working with our independent reviewer, Ovide Mercredi, who is reaching out to survivors and leaders in the Indigenous communities in Northwestern Ontario.”
It was that education process, Schabas said, which prompted members of the Law Society to visit Sioux Lookout and speak with IRS survivors.
“This was an important step for all of us to come out and show we want to listen and we want to learn,” he said.
“Today was a coming together and sharing and learning from one another,” Angeconeb agreed.
“Sometimes we have to think about entering into difficult dialogue, and that’s okay. Sometimes we need that to get over the hump, move on. Difficult dialogue is not really that uncommon if you really want to move toward reconciliation,” he stated at the meeting.
“We’ve taken a step and I’m very hopeful that we will take it to the next level and beyond,” he added.
Angeconeb reflected and shared with those gathered for the meeting, “In this very room, in 1997, 1998, we had a little gathering of survivors, in this very room. At that time the pain was so raw, it was so raw you could put a knife through it.”
“I thought the dialogue between survivors and the law society was encouraging… Certainly the law society was here to listen and learn and I think the sharing and learning went both ways. It was good dialogue throughout the day,” he confirmed.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox also agreed it was a good day.
A lawyer himself, he explained he is a second generation residential school survivor as both of his parents attended residential school.
“If we want true reconciliation, we need action,” he said. “My message was that if we want true reconciliation, let’s give back to the people that you took from. Let’s ensure that 35 years from now… that our successful leaders are also fluent in their languages, aware of who they are, practice their cultures and traditions.”
“We got Doug Keshen, who has been allegedly accused of doing wrongs to the people of these residential schools, the survivors. So we talked about that and we need to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
He told those assembled, “Grand Chief (Alvin) Fiddler thought they should have consulted with the First Nations, the survivors, and the leaders when they did the sharing circle and they didn’t do enough to bring justice to Mr. Keshen. They had the best interests of Mr. Keshen in mind, rather than the best interests of the survivors.”
He said of the law society’s decision to establish the review panel, and bring in Mercredi, “It shows that they care. It’s not just words. It’s a good start and I’m glad they’re here trying to do something, as we are, to ensure that five, 10, 15, 20 years from now Canada, all their groups, First Nations, are working collaboratively and we’re stopping these social issues.”
At the meeting’s conclusion Schabas thanked everyone for sharing their stories and comments.
“We see the frustration. We see the deep hurt, the anger, the harm, the lack of trust… and the cynicism too about your own hopes for what we can do,” he said.
“We know we failed you. We’re acutely aware of that and that’s why we started this process in the spring. That’s why we’re engaging. That’s why we are here today.
“We’re here to listen and learn and we certainly have. We’ve got a lot to take away from this, a lot to digest and I just want to say from my heart, just how grateful I am, and we all are, for the opportunity we’ve had to listen to you today, so thank you very much.”
The review panel is expected to submit its final report in early 2018.