Copyright © 1997. All Rights Reserved.
By Nick Devlin
Something is terribly wrong on the Stoney Reserve. Young Natives are dying. Violently, senselessly, drunkenly - at a pace that would instantly be branded an epidemic in the non-Native community.
One man decided to do something about it. Tired of watching the endless trail of broken and damaged people from the Stoney Reserve filing through his courtroom, Judge John Reilly took a stand. Using new and untested sections of the Criminal Code aimed at making sentencing a more human and contextually sensitive process, he refused to pass sentence on a man convicted of domestic violence until the Crown completed a comprehensive review of conditions on the Stoney Reserve, covering everything from obvious issues such as alcohol abuse, to more politically charged questions such as where the band's oil-millions had gone with so many of its people still living in Third World poverty.
Judge Reilly's order was a brave and crazy political stunt. There is little chance that his order will hold up on appeal, but that's not the point. This man, this powerful white man who makes his living moving people from the scenic ghettos we quaintly call "reservations" to the even worse environment of prison, tried to do the right thing. By his actions, Judge Reilly recognized the accused before him as a person caught in a complex tangle of social ills and injustice and not just another drunk Indian who beat his wife. And he tried to make the "justice system" finally deliver something vaguely resembling justice to the Native community.
Instead of seizing upon the opportunity afforded them by Judge Reilly's unprecedented order and attacking the problems afflicting the Stony Reserve, the government chose to hide behind the veil of technicality and attack Judge Reilly, appearing before a superior court justice in Calgary last week asking that his order be set aside as exceeding his jurisdiction.
No provincially-appointed and paid judge, so their argument runs, should be allowed to take intelligent and courageous steps to help our province's most down-trodden residents if it might embarrass or inconvenience a lazy and uncaring government.
The Criminal Code is not a blanket authorization for judges to call public inquiries. Native affairs are federal jurisdiction. Yes, yes and yes. But that's hardly the point. The provincial government knows damn well that something has to be done - it should have run with the ball Judge Reilly handed it and started the investigation. Then the chief and council would have to explain why their actions shouldn't come under scrutiny when so many on their reserve are crying out for help.
Ask yourself this: when was the last time dozens of Natives turned out to demonstrate in front of the courthouse in support of a judge?
Then again, before you feel too sorry for the people still trapped behind the Buckskin Curtain of the Stoney Reserve, spare a thought for Justice Minister John Havelock and his cabinet colleagues who made this decision. Life must be hard without a spine.
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