When Lauren Winkler, Law’20, went home to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory this summer,
she had a renewed sense of purpose. As one of three Queen’s Law interns participating in the provincial Debwewin Program, she provided legal education and assistance to her First Nation community.
Winkler’s placement with the Tyendinaga Justice Circle (TJC), an organization that offers programs and services to assist Indigenous people in conflict with the law, was supported by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General’s Indigenous Justice Division.
At the end of her 14-week placement, Winkler spoke with Queen’s Law Reports about the work she did in the program that responds to retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci’s First Nation Representation on Ontario Juries Report.
What attracted you to this internship opportunity?
I heard about the Debwewin internship opportunity from some Indigenous friends in upper years at Queen’s Law and through the advertisement of the position. To be honest, I really struggled in my first year of law school because I felt that I was learning a lot about a system that actively works against Indigenous peoples and felt very helpless. When I saw the Debwewin internship opened up, I jumped at the opportunity to apply because I felt a strong need to be back in the community, whether it was my own or another Indigenous community.
I had spent so much of my undergrad working with the Indigenous community here to make life at Queen’s better for Indigenous students but because first year was so busy, I didn’t feel as strong of a connection to the wider Indigenous community at Queen’s. With this internship I have been able to not only be in my own community, but I’ve also been able to work with a team that makes the justice system more accessible to Indigenous peoples and offers restorative alternatives for them.
What work did you do as an intern, and how did it contribute to your organization’s goals?
As an intern I had a lot of flexibility, which I’m not used to. It was quite an adjustment to be able to decide where I wanted to be working from, who I wanted to shadow, and what projects I wanted to work on. Throughout the summer I shadowed people in the different staff positions at the Tyendinaga Justice Circle – going to court in Belleville and Napanee, taking clients to their appointments so they can complete their diversion, going to group homes, meeting with different committees and reading Gladue reports.
Two major parts of the Justice Circle program are diversion and Gladue Reports. Diversion programs are alternative sentencing programs that give offenders the opportunity to rehabilitate and give back to their community. For TJC clients, diversion programs can be cultural or more general. For instance, sometimes it is recommended that clients take part in a talking circle where the offender, victim, their families and communities will come together and try to make amends. Other cultural programming could be meeting with an elder, participating in a sweat, or participating in Indigenous-specific programs for domestic violence or drug abuse. Not all requirements for TJC clients’ diversions are cultural but the courts like to give people the option.
Gladue Reports are pre-sentencing and bail hearing reports that came out of the 1999 case R v Gladue. Under S. 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code, a Canadian court can request a Gladue Report when considering the sentencing of an Aboriginal offender. These reports can include information such as events in the offender’s life that may have led him or her to this point, information about his or her home community, family history with residential schools, interviews with family members about the offender’s character, and the offender’s history with the child welfare system, etc. Every organization or firm that writes Gladue Reports will write them differently – from its format to its content.
Throughout the summer I was able to do research for the Gladue writers to use in their reports. Topics included effects of residential schools, over-incarceration, domestic violence, children in care, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, etc. I was able to create a system that better organized the research that they had been collecting so that their information is easy to find and they can spend more time writing. The Gladue writers at the Justice Circle had a lot of cases on their list for the summer so I was happy to help save them some time.
Two other projects that I worked on this summer had to do with the over-representation of Indigenous youth in group homes. One project was the development of a manual for group home staff on how to better support the Indigenous youth in their care. This manual has mostly been informed by a few Indigenous youth who have experience in group homes and spoke to our team about these experiences. The manual gives some historical context, current issues and statistics, and a list of issues and potential solutions identified by the youth.
The second project related to group homes is a legal information booklet for youth in these homes. This booklet identifies their legal rights under the Charter and specifically discusses their rights when interacting with the police. The youth we spoke with explained that police are often called when there are issues at the home and also raised the issue that they have no idea what their rights are when this happens. I have completed a detailed booklet that they can keep in their rooms as well as a smaller resource that they can keep on them at all times.
What did you find most rewarding about this work?
I have learned so much this summer and I think one thing that bothers me the most (other than the general mistreatment of Indigenous people) is how inaccessible the legal system is to the public. Sitting in court, I see how many people sit wide-eyed as a group of strangers at the front of the room discuss their future in legal language that is hard to understand. It was really rewarding for me to be able to sit with clients and explain the process to them. I also found it equally rewarding to hear from them; I think it is really easy for people to feel that their voice is being lost when they are going through the system and the staff at the Tyendinaga Justice Circle are able to give people their voice back. As a completely voluntary program, it’s up to the Justice Circle clients to decide how they will heal best and the TJC will support them in doing that. It felt amazing when clients said that they felt safe and most comfortable when TJC staff are there with them. When I remember how distrusting Indigenous people are (and rightly so) of the criminal “justice” system, I think about how incredible it is that there is an organization like the Tyendinaga Justice Circle to remind them that they are human and that they matter.