50th anniversary of the Federal Court

June 29, 2022

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I would first like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people.

Congratulations on the 50th anniversary of the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal.

I’m delighted to be here to celebrate this occasion, and I’m proud of the reputation that you’re continuing to build. Your work, and the work of your past and present colleagues, is respected worldwide. Canadians are proud of our judicial institutions and our commitment to the rule of law.

From immigration to the environment to Indigenous issues, your decisions impact how we live and the way we shape our country. You constantly work to improve fairness, justice and equality under the eyes of the law.

I applaud what you have accomplished in the past, and would like to look to the future. Because although we have come so far, there is so much still yet to accomplish to build a country of equal opportunity for all. And we have so far to go to address the challenges we face as a nation, such as reconciliation.

Over the years, I saw how the courts have evolved in their approach to Indigenous peoples.

In 1981, I was part of the negotiating team on behalf of Inuit that contributed to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. Back then, First Nations, Inuit and Métis were all lumped into one group called “aboriginal peoples.” The position that the Indigenous leaders took was that we were distinct peoples with unique identities, languages, cultures and history. Finally, through Section 35 of the Act, we achieved recognition of three distinct Indigenous peoples of Canada—First Nations, Inuit and Métis—and affirmation of the rights and treaty rights of Canada’s first peoples.

Inuit viewed this act as a means to create a stronger and better Canada for all Canadians.

Still, even with this history, Indigenous peoples still struggled to be heard and to implement the spirit of treaties that were seen as static documents instead of living documents that could be reviewed from time to time when context changed and with the passage of time. This lack of mutual agreement has led to disagreements, renegotiations and even court battles.

For Indigenous peoples, who already lived through policies that stripped away language, culture and identity, trust in our most important institutions eroded.

Today, I’m pleased to see the efforts of the courts to address some of these tensions and to restore trust. Most of all, I’m pleased that you’re addressing the issue of access to justice.

You have visited Indigenous communities, for example, to hold hearings. This is a vital way to involve Indigenous peoples in the decisions that impact their daily lives, particularly for those in remote communities, and those without resources to travel.

The audio and written summaries of cases were issued not only in English and French, but also in the appropriate Indigenous language: Cree, Dene, Ojibwe, Innu and many more. I understand this is the first court to translate and publish in Indigenous languages, and I commend this important effort.

Using Indigenous languages is not only important, it also shows respect for the community, for the people and for the true history of our land.

The guidelines set out by the court when preparing Indigenous law cases are another example of our institutions not only listening to people, but also changing to meet the times. You’re now considering context and traditions, the oral and unwritten customs and legal principles of the community, language, Elder testimony and so much more.

How do we build on this momentum? How do we encourage Indigenous peoples and many other diverse voices to find representation in the justice system?

It begins with education.

Earlier this month, the University of Victoria held a convocation ceremony for a cohort of graduates earning a unique law degree that combines the study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous law. The university is no stranger to fostering Indigenous involvement in the legal community, as it formed partnerships in Iqaluit to help establish the Akitsiraq Law School in 2001. This legal education program for Inuit students, along with the newly established law degree at the University of Victoria, are models for leadership. They acknowledge that Indigenous laws, traditions and framework has a place in our justice system.

These are the types of programs Canada needs to get Indigenous peoples more involved, and the courts have a role to play to encourage more Indigenous peoples to pursue law as a career.

What of the court’s makeup?

Things have improved, and diversity has become more of a priority, as outlined in the Federal Court Strategic Plan: 2020-2025.

But true representation hasn’t yet been achieved. It’s important that we can see ourselves in the courts, but that isn’t the only reason to pursue inclusion. Diversity impacts how we view the justice system.  Diversity influences how we understand different points of view.

I’d like to quote one of your colleagues, the Honourable Shirzad Ahmed, who I believe is here with us today. In a speech last year, he said: “Diversity in judicial decision-making also requires a diversity in thinking about the law, its interpretation, and, most fundamentally, the meaning of justice itself.”

During this symposium, you have heard about the history of the courts and the judicial, federal and global issues we’re facing.

We need your diverse perspectives, and we need the diverse perspectives of other communities, so that our country can continue to evolve and do better for generations to come.

Our justice system is a human system. When we recognize mistakes, we move to correct them. The change we seek, the change we need, lies in our most trusted institutions, such as the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal.

We have built a solid and celebrated foundation that holds credibility and respect around the world. As you mark this occasion, I hope you continue to work to maintain balance, fairness and open communication with all Canadians.

I’d like to leave you with a word in Inuktitut: ajuinnata. It’s an important concept for Inuit. It means to never give up. It’s a commitment to action, no matter how difficult the cause may be.

I have great faith in you and everything that you will accomplish for Canada in the spirit of ajuinnata.

Thank you.