Michael Welsh

Canada's justice system has let down Indigenous citizens, says the B.C. president of the Canadian Bar Association.

"It's a terrible situation so we need to do something to change that," said Michael Welsh, in a recent speech to Rotarians.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released in December 2015, only 3 per cent of Canada's population is Indigenous but 20 per cent of inmates in Canadian jails are First Nations including 35 per cent of all incarcerated females. It's estimated that between 50 and 60 per cent of the children in B.C. foster care are Indigenous as well as 25 per cent of murder victims in Canada.

"The law, unfortunately, was used for decades as a tool against our Indigenous citizens not to assist them," said Welsh. "There were laws enacted that didn't allow them to vote, they did not have the right to have a lawyer. They had children who were taken and were forcibly removed and taken hundreds and thousands of miles away in residential schools."

Welsh said his mother-in-law, who is Ojibway, was taken as a child from her home in Manitoba and sent to a residential school in Quebec.

"We are working on the over-representation of Indigenous citizens in jails. Government needs to provide funding for other types of sanctions and ways of dealing with issues that may keep people from going to jail such as more First Nation courts and sentencing circles. More needs to be done, broad-based initiatives."

These issues are now being addressed federally and, to a lesser extent, provincially, Welsh said, but only 1 per cent of B.C.'s $47 billion annual budget is devoted to court services.

Welsh has attended justice summits with social workers, psychiatrists, health professionals, doctors and lawyers on how to address First Nations' issues with the court system.

"Legal issues are social issues. They arise because there are people in the system who are mentally ill, have suffered brain injuries, suffer addictions, been abused and that brings them into conflict with the law. We need to be dealing with the underlying causes, especially among our First Nation citizens."

Reaching out to youth is another solution, Welsh said, believing child protection services should be dealt with in First Nations communities.

Restorative justice, which develops connections between the victim and offender, is another way of diverting people out of the justice system.

The Canadian Bar Association, the leading voice of lawyers in the country, has 36,000 members including 7,000 in B.C. Welsh, who practises law in Penticton, was called to the bar in 1981.

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