In 1974, regional communities had no voice regarding the onslaught of legislation passed in the new legislative assembly powers.
Legislation was often carbon-copied from the south with the same offences and penalties.
The communities did not understand what happened. One day a caribou could be shot for food for family and community, and the next day the hunter was arrested.
But it was advertised? Few could or would read the newspaper, if available. CBC Radio, while constant, broadcasted in English at the time with the minimum of persons who could speak the local language provided by CBC Canada.
As an aside, I missed the highway access off the perimeter that surrounds Winnipeg and ended up sleeping at a commercial stop right beside the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, a huge limestone castle built to house inmates, mostly Indigenous, mostly young, intimidated by elderly white guards that thumped their batons against their hips. I was asked to take on counselling and assistance to released persons.
Moving to Yellowknife, I discovered a real need expressed by judges, lawyers and Crown attorneys for a program to assist those charged with offences. All were concerned that Indigenous People would acquiesce to charges without any defence or explanation of any actions of the charges involved.
I applied for funds to explore the issue and train with the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, a service set up by Chester Cunningham to assist Indigenous persons charged with criminal offences to explain the process of the court with the option of submitting a guilty or non-guilty plea. I returned to start a society for the same purpose. My initial application was to find board members and potential staff members, known local advocates that would assist people.
I travelled to regional communities to talk to community people about the proposed program. I was welcomed with open arms and referred to persons that could fulfill the staff requirements as “known local advocate,” stubborn with temperance to address a court as an advocate.
‘Best of times’
I hired John Bayly as our lead trainer, advocate for the program and his enormous capacity for community people he served. John also had educator credintials. While paid, I am certain he under-charged for his services. He was beloved by the first court-workers, as he knew the communities they came from and talked of the Elders he met and how he appreciated their advice and knowledge.
John later passed away while mushing dogs during a noon break in Yellowknife while meeting for negotiations with the Sahtu. As word spread in Yellowknife and the North, many tears were shed on the loss of an amazing, yet humble man. Just a month prior, at the opening of the Fasken-Martineau Law Offices, John told me that the time training with the Native Court Workers was the best of times in his life and he was so happy to see the program flourish.
The first Native court workers, attending with clients made court news of the day. The magistrates at the time and the Supreme Court judge that recommended such were appreciative of our services.
Sadly, I listened and heard from Chester that a program that needs my constant attention does not deserve to continue under a flag of one individual. After 10 years I left and tried not to interfere without being asked for help.
The program started to falter. I did not interfere with the new executive directors unless asked. The program went to the GNWT, where staff were limited to filling out legal aid applications and died.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Department of Justice when news reports talked of people still not understanding their charges and pleading guilty. I said bring back the Native Court Workers! Her response was “But the liability!” There were no such cases under our watch.
And the man who advised me of overreach, died in his shoes with the Native Counselling Services after a lifelong dedication to the office.
While attending the court offices, I was gratified to see many Indigenous names occupying offices. Now some of these workers are the children and grandchildren of the original staff we had.
I believe we helped with that.