The Law Society of Ontario knows it has to do better for Indigenous clients after an independent review found problems with the way it worked with residential school survivors, says its treasurer.
“We had to listen and learn,” said Paul Schabas.
A 60-page report posted to the Society’s website Wednesday exposed “gaps and failings” when it came to serving survivors and the Indigenous community as a whole.
Schabas said the Society hired Indigenous leader Ovide Mercredi to work alongside its review panel to write the report. And the changes they recommend will begin immediately, he added in a telephone interview.
“We have to look at alternative ways of gathering evidence, of conducting hearings, of cross-examination,” he said describing a wholesale change to the way the Society interacts with Indigenous peoples.
Mercredi met with survivors after the Society scrapped a disciplinary procedure against lawyer Doug Keshen last year (link to my story )
Mercredi wrote in a scathing report that doing that violated survivors’ trust in the Society and left many feeling re-victimized.
“Unfortunately, for the Keshen complainants and other residential school survivors who were unhappy with their lawyers, the hurt and regrets have been compounded,” he wrote.
It’s not easy to make a complaint against someone in authority – especially for survivors, Mercredi said in calling on the Society to be more culturally sensitive.
Schabas says the message was received loud and clear and will only help the Society work on future cases.
In tandem, the Society released a new guide this week aimed at helping lawyers, paralegals, judges and law students involve Indigenous people in the legal process “in a more meaningful way.”
Scott Robertson, president of the Indigenous Bar Association, said his group partnered with the Society to produce the source.
“Anybody working within the legal system is encouraged to read it,” he said Thursday.
“What we’re ultimately hoping for is it gets picked up and is cited and used by the courts.”
The guide was produced in response to Call to Action 27 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which said lawyers need “cultural competency training” on the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People, treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.
“We hope it gets used as a teaching aid in law school,” Robertson added.
Ray Mason, a residential school survivor in Manitoba, says reform is long overdue when it comes to the way lawyers treat Indigenous peoples and vulnerable survivors.
“I agree with Mr. Mercredi,” he said. “It is a colonial system that has failed us.”
Mason, president of the national survivors’ organization Spirit Wind, says he fielded many complaints from survivors about the way lawyers handled compensation claims through the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) for abuse suffered at residential schools.
“They trusted their lawyers and the lawyers did them an injustice, a horrible job,” he said in a telephone interview.
And discipline is usually lacking, he added.
“The law societies are not friendly to Aboriginal people,” he said.