Time for an Indigenous judge on the Supreme Court: Editorial

June 15, 2017
Article Source
Toronto Star

It's time for the federal government to appoint an Indigenous judge to the Supreme Court of Canada – or explain why not.

Beverley McLachlin has just announced she will step down as chief justice in December. That will open up a vacancy and hand the Trudeau government another opportunity to shape the top court and Canadian law for many years to come.

The government should make it a priority to find the best-qualified Indigenous jurist to fill this crucial position. In 2017, as Canada marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it would be hugely symbolic for First Nations people finally to see one of their own on the high court.

The importance of this goes beyond symbolism, however. It has long been accepted that diversity on the bench improves the quality of justice by widening the range of perspectives brought to judicial decision-making.

It also increases public confidence in the court system. No less an authority than McLachlin herself has said that "many people, particularly women and visible minorities, may have less than complete trust in a system composed exclusively or predominantly of middle-aged white men in pinstriped trousers."

This is especially important for Indigenous people, who are hugely over-represented in the justice system. As Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould pointed out last year, while they form about 4.3 per cent of Canada's population, they make up more than a quarter of prison inmates. In some parts of the country, Indigenous people are up to 33 times more likely to end up behind bars.

At the same time, Canada's judiciary has been slow to change, although the pace has picked up under the Trudeau government. A survey last year showed that a scant 1 per cent of judges in provincial superior and lower courts are Indigenous (indeed, only 3 per cent are from visible minorities). The courts simply don't reflect the country's population.

Of course, many will argue that judges should be chosen strictly by merit, without regard for other factors. But it is beyond belief at this point that only white (and still mostly male) lawyers can meet the standards of professional skill, experience and integrity to qualify for appointment to the bench.

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