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Chief Justice Richard Wagner stresses need to boost Indigenous reconciliation efforts

"Cultural competence is critical to access to justice, and the rule of law. Judges are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to engage with and learn from the wider public, including communities with which they have little or no life experience."
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Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner gesutres as he responds to a question during his annual news conference June 18, 2020 in Ottawa. Wagner said all judges need to be able to relate to people of various cultures. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Canada's chief justice says judges must be alert to the history and experience of Indigenous peoples, and should make the same commitment to those of other cultures and communities. 

In a recent speech to Ontario judges, Richard Wagner said that in a country as diverse as Canada, all who sit on the bench will need to be able to respectfully and comfortably relate to people of various cultures.

Wagner said acknowledging personal biases can be an enlightening but uncomfortable exercise, particularly for members of the judiciary.

Judges are proud of their impartiality, fairness and devotion to ensuring Canadians have equal benefit of the law without discrimination.

However, Wagner said, judges are the product of their own lived experiences as well as their privileges — or lack of them.

A copy of Wagner's May 6 speech, delivered virtually to Ontario Superior Court justices attending a National Judicial Institute seminar, was recently posted on the Supreme Court website.

"We must redouble our efforts of reconciliation with the First Peoples of Canada," Wagner said.

"In this spirit, judges are becoming more actively involved with the wider public. This is great! Through these actions we enhance public confidence and expand our knowledge of the diversity of human experiences in Canada today."

Wagner said such efforts help judges develop the essential skill of "cultural competence" — the ability to better relate to people who are different from them.

"Cultural competence is critical to access to justice, and the rule of law. Judges are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to engage with and learn from the wider public, including communities with which they have little or no life experience."

The chief justice told of how he had done this upon realizing he could not travel to Iqaluit to deliver convocation remarks to Nunavut law graduates.

"I have never been to Nunavut. I have no life experience of my own to draw upon, so I scheduled an informal call with the students. For 60 minutes, we just talked. We covered a lot of ground, too — such as access to justice in the territory, practising law in Inuktitut, and Indigenous representation on the bench."

Wagner said the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the most vulnerable, meaning that an abundance of understanding and cultural competence will be crucial to delivering justice and resolving disputes.

The Canadian Judicial Council’s new Ethical Principles for Judges will play an important role in helping navigate a drastically different landscape than the one of 1998 when the previous version was published, Wagner said.

Today, judges’ work includes case management, settlement conferences, judicial mediation, and frequent interactions with self-represented litigants, he noted. 

"There is more emphasis on professional development and more judges are enjoying post-judicial careers," he said. 

"These, along with the advent of social media, raise ethical issues that were not fully considered, if at all, in 1998. The emergence of Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have also spread awareness about real shortcomings in various parts of justice system."

The remarks come as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to appoint a Supreme Court member from Ontario to replace the retiring Rosalie Abella.

Diversity on the bench has come slowly and incrementally, Wagner said. But he pointed to recent data that shows 45 per cent of all federally appointed judges are now women.

"There is also increased representation of judges who are Indigenous, racialized or identify as having a disability or are LGBTQ2," he said.

"Canadians are seeing themselves on the bench — judges with career paths, life experiences and knowledge systems they can relate to. I welcome the new perspectives these colleagues are bringing to the bench. They build public confidence and understanding in our justice system."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press