Cowessess First Nation Seal. WikimediaCUPE 1949, the union representing Legal Aid staff and lawyers, extends its condolences to the people of Cowessess First Nation and all other Indigenous peoples who have been impacted by the news that an estimated 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of the former Marieval residential school.

Legal Aid represents clients on family and criminal matters where a person cannot afford to pay a lawyer.  Changes to Saskatchewan’s Legal Aid system are necessary steps in the move towards fully implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

“A significant majority of our clients are Indigenous, and almost all of them have been impacted by the legacy of colonialism, including residential schools,” said Julia Quigley, president of CUPE 1949. “That legacy plays out in the criminal and family justice systems where we see that Indigenous peoples are vastly overrepresented in our jails and in the child welfare system.”

CUPE is calling for the Saskatchewan government to expand eligibility criteria for access to Legal Aid and to increase funding to family law so more resources can be put towards keeping families together.

“As it stands, you basically have to be on social assistance to qualify for a lawyer.  By expanding eligibility, we could help more people get their kids back in their care or prevent them from going into the child welfare system in the first place.  If we focus on keeping Indigenous families together, we can prevent people from getting lost to the criminal system in the future,” added Quigley.

One possibility would be to have Legal Aid partner with Indigenous organizations and leaders to create a system of wrap-around legal and social supports aimed at keeping Indigenous families together and reuniting them where they have been fractured.

“The legal status quo is not working for Indigenous peoples,” said Quigley.  “We simply can’t jail or apprehend our way out of these systemic issues.  We are calling on all levels of government to overhaul a justice system that continues to perpetuate the harms that have been inflicted on Indigenous peoples.”

Quigley’s message is that the Canadian public needs to educate itself about Canada’s colonial history and to consider how it has led to the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in courtrooms and jails.

“We, as a country, need to shift our approach to policing, our overreliance on jails, and our obsession with apprehending Indigenous children from their families.  Indigenous communities need the support and funding to devise their own solutions to the problems the Canadian government has created over decades where Indigenous peoples have been neglected and abused across these systems, including the residential school system.  And Legal Aid needs to be a part of those solutions.”