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Manitoba announces change to program helping Indigenous people navigate justice system

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A program aimed to help Indigenous people navigate the justice system is transitioning from the province to Indigenous organizations.

The Indigenous Court Work Program, previously known as the Aboriginal Court Work Program, was established in Canada to help Indigenous people navigate the court system, including offering translation services.

On Tuesday, the Province of Manitoba announced it is signing service delivery agreements to transfer the program to four Indigenous agencies: Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), Southern Chiefs' Organization (SCO), Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), and the Island Lake Tribal Council (ILTC).

“Having our organization deliver these vital services within the justice system supports the accused and their families through an often unsettling process as a case winds its way through the courts,” MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in a news release from the province.

The province said so far it has signed service delivery agreements with MKO, SCO, and MMF. It is anticipating a final agreement with ILTC will be completed in the near future.

The transition will allow for work connecting Indigenous people to resource agencies and victim services, as well as assistance for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S+ people to continue under Indigenous organizations.

“We know that supporting Indigenous-led solutions is imperative to making meaningful progress on the path to reconciliation, and we look forward to ongoing meaningful reciprocal and respectful relationships that ensure appropriate services and supports are being delivered,” Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in the release.

Goertzen, along with Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said Indigenous people are overrepresented in the province’s justice system.

The province says work to transition began in 2021. Over the next two years, the provincial and federal government will be giving grants totalling more than $1 million to the four organizations to help them transition.

“I am pleased these supports are no longer out of reach but are being made readily available through a co-ordinated support system that includes SCO community justice workers,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said.

A spokesperson from the province said transitional supports will continue until the organizations’ programs are fully staffed and operational. They also said community contribution agreements and relationships between the organizations will continue as the federal and provincial agreement evolves.

 “(It) impacts on not only the individuals but the families and the community. And so in that sense it will be a win-win situation,” MMF Justice Minister Julyda Lagimodiere said.

Lagimodiere expects it will take time to identify what supports Métis people working with the program will need.

The province says between 2020 and 2021, more than 4,300 people were assisted through the Indigenous Court Workers Program. The province expects that number to grow once the partnering organization’s programs are up and running.

The program has been running for more than 40 years. Similar programs are run in most Canadian provinces and all territories, with most regions contracting Indigenous agencies. 

Jarred Baker is the executive director of Onashowewin, an organization working with people who are and are not part of the court system. He said Onashowewin focusses on restorative justice and addressing root causes of crime.

“We’re sort of opening doors,” Baker said. “We work with the community member to go through workshops and change behaviour so in the future there’s no recidivisms. It’s just to give someone a second chance.”

Onashowewin works with nearly two thousand people a year. Baker wants to see systems work together to address systemic issues that could lead to crime.

“You talk about CFS, you talk about the education system, the medical system – all of these are failing our Indigenous people.”

He said they are all intertwined – and need to communicate with each other to find ways to help Indigenous people.

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