Harold R. Johnson, Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada, Random House, Toronto, 2019. 160 pp. $24.75. ISBN: 978-0771048722.
First of all, let it be clear that I have not attended Harvard Law School. And I have never studied law, except for the book of Leviticus. I have been in prison on several occasions—as a visitor/advocate. And I have attended court on many occasions—accompanying persons who requested my support. Those cases ranged from minor theft to traffic charges to murder and rape. I have been chairperson of the board of a Legal Aid Society, chairperson of the provincial association of Legal Aid Boards, and a member of the provincial Legal Aid Commission. I was expelled from the commission on a technical matter: I reported that a certain resolution I presented to the commission was “unanimous” rather than “carried.” These experiences give me some insight into our “justice” system.
From my experience, Harold Johnson is not exaggerating in his assessment of Canadian law and the justice system and how it is failing Indigenous peoples. I have seen police officers, police chiefs, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and, yes, even judges, at their very worst. I have also seen some at their very best. I once had a judge turn to me and ask: “Reverend Neufeld, what do you think I should do in this matter?” I learned that law and Canadian justice are not synonymous with truth. It is from this background that I venture to make a few comments on this book.
First, speaking of backgrounds, author Harold Johnson’s is impressive. He moves from the trapline to a uranium mine, to university, to law school, and finally to Harvard—the top of the law ladder—to the courts as a lawyer, and back to the trapline. Johnson has seen a lot. And I am inclined to agree with his assessment that if Indigenous peoples are to experience and practice “Peace and Good Order,” a different path from the current “justice” system must be chosen. Johnson argues that the treaties—those solemn covenants made between Indigenous peoples and the Crown—provide justification for it. Holding the promises of the past, he clearly articulates that legal path forward. Whether that path can be negotiated is another matter.
Indigenous persons in Canada are ten times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by a police officer. Ten times. I believe, with Johnson, that we need fewer police and more trauma councilors. In ever so many situations, four to six uniformed, heavily armed officers in black is not a solution. In fact, it creates a bigger problem. We’ve known this for decades. Sixty years ago I was an officer serving under the child welfare act. I remember visiting a family where a psychotic parent posed a threat to security. I asked an unarmed plainclothes detective to accompany me. He was trained to deal with situations like that and was not an immediate visual threat.
For Johnson, the shooting of twenty-two-year-old Colton Boushie (Biggar, Saskatchewan) and murder of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine (Winnipeg, Manitoba) represent the great inadequacy of the Canadian “justice” system. The question remains, Can the world wait for us to slowly scratch away at “improving” our system, or is a radically different culture of justice needed? For Johnson, it’s the latter. The Indigenous community can establish their own jurisdiction in the matter of law. And they must.
The radical adversarial posture of the current legal system—of both prosecution and defense—distorts the scene from the very beginning of any judicial procedure. The judge is mandated to rule on the basis of the evidence presented. In practice, that often means that the lawyer exercising the greatest creativity with the facts wins. Perhaps that’s why Johnson declares so boldly: “I feel ashamed of [my] time involved with the justice system,” and “I view my time as a defence lawyer as a failure.”
I agree with Johnson that the current administration of justice is not a solution. It is part of the problem. And we need to address it, with urgency, because the Indigenous community suffers tremendously under its oppressive weight. Indigenous women, for example, now account for 42 percent of women in federal custody. Forty-two percent. (Indigenous people only comprise 4 to 5 percent of the total population in Canada.) This needs to change. And that change will benefit not only Indigenous peoples but also the many non-Indigenous peoples who are hurt by the systemic problems within our legal system.
For Johnson, our prime focus should be on healing and reconciliation, not punishment. I think many of us in the Peace Church would agree. We need to challenge lawyers and judges in our midst to dare to speak out in an effort to move from punishment via incarceration to something that seeks to restore loving behavior to those who have “fallen short.” As a church, we should become more informed on justice matters and then humbly seek to become an agent for radical change, following all those change-agents—Indigenous, black, yellow, and white—who are leading such critical efforts even now.
David Neufeld has a degree in theology, not law. A former pastor, David served in Leamington and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, and in North Battleford, Herschel, Fiske, and Aberdeen, Saskatchewan. Whether in Vietnam or India with Mennonite Central Committee or in Canada, he has always been active in community development. Now eighty-two years of age and retired, David lives with his wife, Sue, at Bethany Manor in Saskatoon, where he occasionally gets to preach to other old people who generally live above the law.