Shortly after noon ET Wednesday, law students and faculty at the University of Toronto walked out of class and gathered for a teach-in on the systemic issues faced by Indigenous people in the justice system.
The walk-out was part of a larger initiative by law schools across Canada to raise awareness and open up a dialogue in the wake of the Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine cases.
"We wanted to do something to ensure that other law students understood that there was more than just a legal question in these cases and understood the other systems at work that contributed to the acquittal of both of the accused," said Leslie Anne St.Amour, a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation near Ottawa in her first year at U of T's law school.
Raymond Cormier was charged with second-degree murder in Fontaine's death in Winnipeg, and Gerald Stanley was charged with second-degree murder for shooting Colten Boushie near Biggar, Sask. Both accused were found not guilty by juries last month.
After the verdicts, St.Amour was talking with a friend attending the University of Victoria who said the law school and Indigenous students association there was looking to organize an event. St.Amour brought an an event proposal to the U of T chapter of the Indigenous Law Students Association (ILSA) and began organizing.
Including Indigenous legal traditions
Indigenous perspectives need to be brought into the law school classroom and students and faculty need to be educated on systemic issues, said St.Amour, and students need to be taught that there are Indigenous legal traditions as well.
"It's not solely the Canadian legal system that exists within this country and I think one of the biggest things for me moving forward is that schools are starting to include that in their curriculum," she said.
She said that so far in classrooms she hasn't heard a lot of conversation around the verdicts, which is one of the reasons why ILSA wanted to ensure that an active discussion was happening.
Approximately 100 students and faculty gathered in the Jackman Law Building atrium to take part in the discussion.
"Every Canadian needs to be engaged with this issue and to also look inwards and confront their own expectations and attitudes," said Katie Longo, a third-year law student and president of U of T's Students' Law Society.
At the teach-in, ILSA brought up a range of issues from each of the cases, such as the jury selection process in the Stanley trial and how the RCMP handled the investigation into Boushie's death; and systemic failures in the child welfare system and police response that might have contributed to the death of Fontaine.
"A lot of what we've seen in these cases is that people's attitudes, whether it be the people who perpetrate violence against Indigenous people, or people who look the other way when it happens, have a responsibility to confront those own aspects of themselves," she said.
"Once we all collectively do that we might have a criminal justice system that accurately serves the Indigenous communities of our country."