The outgoing Dene National Chief is calling on officials to appoint an Indigenous judge in the Northwest Territories.
Bill Erasmus says that ideally at least fifty percent of the judges in the NWT should be if Indigenous descent, reflecting the Indigenous population of the territory.
The NWT is currently in the process of hiring a territorial court judge to replace Bernadette Schmaltz who retired in May of this year.
Erasmus says the person appointed as judge should be extremely well aware of Indegenous rights in Canada and a specialist in Indigenous law.
He adds if the territory has to look for an Indigenous person from the south to be the NWT’s next judge, then so be it.
It is not clear whether there are any Indigenous applicants to be the NWT’s next judge.
According to Sue Glowach, spokesperson for the NWT Department of Justice, there is no time frame for when Schmaltz will be replaced.
In an email, Glowach stated that the new judge will be appointed by NWT Commissioner Margaret Thom following recommendations by what’s known as the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee.
That committee is made up of lawyers, judges and other prominent members of the NWT, but is lacking in Indigenous representation.
When asked, Glowach stated that appointing an Indigenous judge is not necessarily part of the committee’s mandate.
“The mandate of the Judicial Advisory Committee is to make a recommendation in the form of a ranked list of candidates in order of suitability with brief supporting reasons, ” Glowach stated. “The decision to appoint a judge from that list is made by the Commissioner in Executive Council.”
It is believed that only one current judge of the eight full-time judges covering Territorial and Supreme Courts in the territory is Indigenous.
Erasmus is acutely aware of the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice and corrections systems in the NWT.
He isn’t sure if an Indigenous judge will necessarily be able to change that and he is not suggesting an Indigenous judge will or should be more lenient on Indigenous offenders.
Erasmus says he just wants the judicial bench to reflect the population makeup.
“What we need is a commitment by the territorial government and the Canadian justice system to have the NWT be reflected by its population,” Erasmus said. “If there are eight judges we should make a political commitment that 50 percent of them be Indigenous and start this time around to fill that gap.”
Erasmus admits he is not a big fan of the Canadian judicial system, particularly when it comes to the system’s understanding of Indigenous culture.
Furthermore, he says that the Canadian Justice Ministry should take a harder look at allowing Indigenous self-governments to set up there own justice systems.
“We are in Treaty 8 Territory here in Yellowknife. Say I was charged with something, I should have the right within the Canadian Constitution to go to a Dene court in my own language just as the French do. Where’s the opportunity for the Dene to go to their own court?”
Erasmus says Indigenous governments have made that pitch to the federal justice minister but are still waiting for an answer.
Erasmus steps down next week after almost three decades as Dene National Chief.
He assures the Dene people that he is not retiring and will still be involved in their issues, just not as chief.