Enhancing Dialogue on Canada’s Criminal Justice System

September 09, 2021

By: Claire Patterson, Marketing and Engagement Assistant at Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue

“The problems with our criminal justice system are not new,” said Sabreena Delhon Executive Director at The Samara Centre for Democracy.  Systemic racism, myths and misconceptions, and underfunded legal aid are only some of the challenges that are deeply entrenched in the status quo.”

The words echoed through laptop and phone speakers to the ears of journalists, academics, and policy experts that made up the audience of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s virtual July Doubling Down. Sabreena was joined by El JonesJennifer TaylorMeenakshi MannoeBrandon RolleAlyshah Sanmati Hasham, and Xhopakelxhit in a coast-to-coast discussion on motivating change in Canada’s criminal justice system.  

While there is a historic tendency in academic spaces to draw on white expertise, Doubling Down brought together a group whose majority shares the experience of doing this work as people of color. Each also has a distinct role as a leader in motivating change in Canada’s criminal justice system. The diversity of the panel centered those most affected and grotesquely overrepresented as incarcerated across the nation. 

The conversation leveled emotional knowing and academic knowledge as equal in power, an uncommon phenomenon for post-colonial academic spaces. This leveling spoke to the specific efforts to decolonize the conversation which was a vital action to be able to discuss the topic of criminal justice.

 The speakers shared news stories, case law examples, scholarly units, and personal stories with emotion. They spoke to clearly express how they were affected by their work and the system that they work within. Tears fell when discussing the heavy topic of drug overdoses and absorbing the drumbeat of the Indigenous welcome at the beginning of the event. 

 Throughout the conversation, over 25 links to further reading on the topics were being shared live through the chat function. This mobilized further learning and worked to help contextualize the interconnectivity and history of injustices in the criminal justice system.

 Spoken from the head and the heart, these leaders define what it means to consider optimism as a moral imperative. This group of individuals is part of the necessary work to enhance dialogue on Canada’s criminal justice system. The convening of these leaders allows for a greater understanding of what is working and what isn’t. Through conversations like this our public can better understand and make choices to motivate action for changing the status quo and moving towards the collective future we want.

The panelist’s dedication to their work is paramount but the pace of decolonizing approaches to criminal justice systemically is slow. And even when action is applied, such as street checks being banned in Nova scotia, the overarching issue of ongoing racism remains. Yet the panelists don’t indulge in the luxury of despair. They can’t afford to. Their optimism is important in informing the livelihoods of those affected by the system's failures. 

So, how do the people who have dedicated themselves to doing the necessary work of improving Canada’s approach to criminal justice maintain hope? 

Xhopakelxhit

Xhopakelxhit recently has been fighting for accountability from the Royal BC museum to release the records of residential schools, specifically records currently held at the BC Archives. She writes the piece noting that it is “with an exhaustion that only Indigenous women will know”.

“Right now, in terms of the political climate that is happening in so-called Canada, there's not a lot to be hopeful for. They're finding, 1000s of bodies of children. That's directly impacting the rates of suicide and deaths in our communities.” 

“The thing that I'm optimistic for is having more dialogue like this, and creating safe spaces for people to be able to hold space inside of themselves, where they can speak their truth.” 

 El Jones 

El Jones knows this exhaustion as well. She explains it comes from  “the Star-Trek effect” in which  “For centuries, there's no (talk of) racism, and we don’t talk about how that happened. We just wave it away, and everybody's happy now.” Jones goes on to explain the Star-trek effect is “always the place that people want to go to with social justice work. We don't want to do the hard work of getting there. We just want to say, “It's gone. Get over it”’. 

 The lack of recognition and empathy for those affected by a system that continues to do injustice is exhausting. Jones describes that she finds beauty in people still moving to help each other despite disparate realities. “Where they call your phone and say, there's somebody in here in solitary, he's not being treated right, this is my last phone call, I'm helping him.”

 Alyshah Hasham

Alyshah Hasham’s work is to convey these stories to the public. As a reporter for the Toronto Star, she notes alternative media and social media's role in disseminating information to be hopeful as a means of shifting public narratives. With social media’s lack of filtering from editors and corporations, the stories of the people on the ground are able to reach a wider public. Hasham notes that first-hand accounts have been “incredibly helpful and have helped further the conversation around defunding police”.

Brandon Rolle

In Nova Scotia, Brandon Rolle finds hope through making progress in bringing the African Nova Scotian voice into the courtrooms. “When a client walks into the courtroom and sees a black judge and knows that their story will be understood, or when we can get a cultural assessment before the court and someone's complete identity is in front of the court. They don't have to be separated or that narrative is not erased. To me, that's helpful.”

 Jennifer Taylor

Jennifer Taylor adds to this by describing the work that she has done in co-founding the Nova Scotia policing policy working group. Taylor describes that sometimes the lack of room in civil litigation work can be frustrating but she is reminded of the changes she can make outside of her job to better the community. 

Meenkashi Mannoe

Meenkashi Mannoe describes her source of inspiration to come from being on the West Coast surrounded by Indigenous Matriarchs. Mannoe is the criminalization and policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society. She wears a shirt to the event that is in memorial for Harriet Nahanne, who stood up to development just prior to the 2010 Olympics and was a 71-year-old, Indigenous woman residential school survivor. Mannoe goes on to say that “for settlers, the work isn’t about optimism. It is about supporting survival and resistance.” 

There was much more that was discussed in Enhancing Dialogue on Canada’s Criminal Justice System. Watch the dialogue in full here.

Continue learning with the full list of resources that were shared in the chat here.

Read more about the panel of speakers and discover the breadth of work that they are involved in here.