By Jodi Lundmark, tbnewswatch.com
Ontario's regional chief sees the city's new consolidated courthouse as the beginning of change for First Nation people within Canada's justice system.
"The fact the Aboriginal culture was acknowledged here - the drum, the songs, the dance as well as the circle room - it's a good start," said Stan Beardy Wednesday evening at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Thunder Bay Courthouse, which has been fully operational since April 14.
"When I look at the future, I am encouraged there will be change coming in the next generation and that's good for all of us," Beardy said.
Most concerning to the regional chief is the overrepresentation of First Nation people in the correctional system.
Beardy said the jail in Kenora had 137 inmates last summer; 131 of them were First Nation.
"Either First Nation people are all bad or the system is flawed," he said, adding Canada has an excellent legal system, but it does not provide justice for First Nation people.
The new six-storey courthouse on Brodie Street has 15 courtrooms and four judicial conference rooms, including an Aboriginal conference settlement suite.
Wednesday's ceremony also included Aboriginal prayers, drumming and dancing.
Beardy said the new facility is an opportunity for concerns to be expressed.
"When you look at statistics, the number of First Nation people in jail, I'm hoping with the new court building it will give us an opportunity for lawmakers to begin to acknowledge the fact we have a lot of work to do in Ontario," he said.
Earlier this month, the province announced the position of an assistant deputy attorney general for Aboriginal justice.
Ontario's Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur attended Wednesday's ceremony and said the new deputy attorney general will help the province work closely with the First Nation community to address the issues.
"We need to be able to understand their needs and also work with them towards a solution," she said.
The first step is implementing recommendations made by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci on the representation of First Nations on jury rolls.
Last Thursday, Shaldon Wabason's second-degree murder trial was stayed for one year after a judge ruled First Nation representation on jury rolls was inadequate.
Meilleur said Ontario needs to have that representation in the jury system and she is determined to correct the issue.
While she couldn't say when any of the recommendations would be implemented, Meilleur said a committee has been appointed to move the process forward.
"It will go a long way to help us understand each other, our challenges and what we can do to improve the situation of our First Nations," she said.