How community legal clinics are breaking down barriers for Indigenous people: Reasonable doubt

July 25, 2017
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From NOW Magazine's Reasonable Doubt column: Indigenous people have never received kindness or assistance from Canada's legal systems. From theft of land and the outlawing of the Potlach and other traditional ceremonies, to residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and disregarded treaty rights, Indigenous peoples have faced centuries of hatred, discrimination and genocide.

And lest you think these issues are all in the past – that Indigenous people should "just get over it" – I urge you to examine the recent murder of Barbara Kentner in Thunder Bay. Another recent example is the outgoing BC Liberal government's last-minute decision to grant permits to Taseko Mines Ltd. to conduct "a massive drilling program" on Tsilhqot’in territory near Williams Lake, despite strong community opposition and two federal decisions to deny the permits.

Obviously, there are thousands more untold stories of how Canada's legal system has not only failed Indigenous people, but continues to use its colonial authority to oppress, silence and eradicate them.

With thoughts and hearts turned to the project of Truth and Reconciliation, Legal Aid Ontario has hired five Indigenous justice coordinators (IJCs) to work in the Community Legal Clinic system with the goal of improving access to justice for Indigenous people in Ontario. In December 2016, Luane Lentz (Lu) joined our team at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services (WRCLS), and this week I interviewed her to find out more about the project, goals, challenges and successes.

Lu has lived in Waterloo region for 13 years, but comes from Kenora in Northern Ontario. She is Cree, of the Sturgeon Clan, and her mother is from the fly-in community of Sandy Lake and a survivor of Kenora's Cecelia Jeffrey Indian Residential School.

Lu moved south to study at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, and obtained her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Waterloo in 2010. She worked at the University of Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre for six years, advocating for students and doing community development work, before joining our team at WRCLS.

Lu explained that the overarching goal of the Indigenous Justice Strategy is to improve access to justice for the urban Indigenous community in her geographic catchment area of Waterloo, Guelph-Wellington and Mississauga. Her role involves plenty of community outreach and development, trust-building with non-Indigenous social service organizations and educating our staff and board on issues and approaches to serving our Indigenous clients.

Unique to Lu's position is that her geographic catchment area is the only one without a reserve. Our colleagues, the IJCs in Hamilton, Sarnia, St. Thomas and Windsor, all work with both urban and on-reserve Indigenous folks, so Lu faces the challenge of convincing non-Indigenous (or "mainstream") organizations in our community that we all serve many Indigenous clients, but that the population is largely hidden.

Also, Indigenous folks are not quick to self-identify when seeking legal services, in particular because being Indigenous has not helped them at any point in history and instead has often caused harm. Lu encourages us to ask the question and to quickly follow up with an explanation as to why the question is being asked and for what purpose that information will be used. Any Indigenous clients who do self-identify at our clinic are offered the services of Lu's program.

Read more: How community legal clinics are breaking down barriers for Indigenous people: Reasonable doubt