21 May 2014
ABORIGINAL JUSTICE REFLECTION: Through the window
by Michelle Fraser
[Note: The following reflection by a member of the May
Aboriginal Justice delegation has been adapted for CPTnet. The original is available here. ]
Two weeks ago on our Aboriginal Justice delegation, we
attended bail court for people arrested and held over the weekend in Kenora,
Ontario. We hoped that our
presence indicated to both the court employees and defendants that people were watching,
that outsiders cared about what happened in that space.
The sharp gradient of power symbolized within the courtroom
struck me. The judge was literally
front and center and at the highest point in the room. His word was law and his orders carried
out. The defendant was cloistered
behind glass panels at the side. He
could speak only when spoken to. His fate was dependent upon the judgments of others. Dynamics of structural oppression were
also at work, from the racialized division of Anishinaabe defendants and white
settler prosecutors, to the social, historical, and economic backdrop of the
In the afternoon we visited the Fellowship Centre, a drop-in
operated by the Presbyterian Church used primarily by Anishinaabe people. I felt fear arise within me as I approached
a table of older Anishinaabe men. In
a reversal of my expectations, I was welcomed into the circle of their
friendship. One man pulled out the
cribbage board and they set about teaching me how to play. When the time came to leave, my cribbage
teacher insisted on walking me to the door where he solemnly shook my hand,
thanked me for offering my friendship, and clearly stated that he wasn’t asking
me for material assistance.
My walk the next morning led to my favourite Kenora cafe,
Hojoe’s. Located on the main
street a couple of blocks from both the Courthouse and the Fellowship Centre,
it is a quiet haven offering WiFi and good coffee. As I sat at a window seat, I looked at a person walking by on
the sidewalk and saw my cribbage teacher from the Fellowship Centre. I don’t know whether he recognized me, but I noticed with a
shock the disparity between us. Yesterday
I had been free to join him in his space. He had welcomed me, taught me, joked with me, and shared some
of his story with me. Today a pane
of glass separated us. He would
not be welcome in this upscale cafe.
I could cross into his space; he could not cross into mine.
Less than a minute after my teacher passed from my view, two
prosecution lawyers from the court entered the café, ordered coffees, and sat
to discuss cases.
Our relationships to the
coffee shop are incarnations of privilege less visible but equally as powerful
as the courtroom seating. My
inheritance, and the inheritance of the lawyers, is the social milieu of power.
The inheritance of the men at the
Fellowship Center is exclusion from these same decision-making circles. Since I am conscious of my privilege I
may choose to navigate both social circles. I can strengthen my skills in
relating to people who live on the streets, who have inherited legacies of
dispossession, trauma, and cultural genocide, people who have survived abuse,
addiction, and poverty. I can commit to the discipline of walking between
worlds, of trying to bring together what has been made separate.