‘Very harmful for many people’: B.C. attorney general reflects on actions taken to address rights of Indigenous people in justice system

‘Very harmful for many people': B.C. attorney general reflects on actions taken to address rights of Indigenous people in justice system
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma attends a swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

After a career focusing on Indigenous rights, B.C.’s attorney general says she is working to bring in changes to the province to better address the needs of Indigenous people in the justice system.

Niki Sharma was named B.C.’s new attorney general in December 2022, and before her time in politics, she worked as a lawyer focusing on representing Indigenous people.

Her office has started work in addressing some gaps in the justice system for Indigenous people.

“Some of the particular things under the Attorney General’s office that I’m very glad to be helping with, one is Indigenous Justice Centres. So we’re opening up Indigenous Justice Centres across the province, it’ll be 15 in a couple of years that will be up and running,” Sharma said, speaking with Tchadas Leo on the Our Native Land podcast.

“And the whole point of that is to be – we know that the justice system has had a very disproportionate negative impact on Indigenous people, and so the goal is to one, lessen [the] impact, and the second part is also upholding Indigenous legal orders.”

The justice centres will help connect Indigenous people to legal support, with the eventual goal of finding a way to have Indigenous ways to resolve disputes.

Indigenous people are over-represented in B.C.’s justice system. In the province, Indigenous people make up six per cent of the population, but 35 per cent in custody, according to the provincial government. Statistics Canada says the over-representation of Indigenous people in B.C. increased by three per cent between 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.

In her work, Sharma says it’s important to be open to finding different ways of doing things and not believing the current way is the “right” way.

“We, and I think about this in my job, have to be very humble and not thinking we have the right way,” she said. “Because our ways have been very harmful for many people over time. So there’s something about that — stepping back and thinking, ‘Well, what is progress and how do we learn what progress is?'”

Sharma was recently part of a five-person team from B.C. who went to Switzerland for the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She says representatives from B.C. were invited since the province was among the first jurisdictions in the world to implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“There were Indigenous organizations and leaders there that were in exile from their home countries because they were speaking up about the abuses that were happening and were no longer safe right in the countries they were in,” Sharma said.

“We need to stand up and talk about it in the world a little bit more. So it was a really powerful experience to represent B.C., I take a lot of lessons from it,” she said.

During the Our Native Land episode with Sharma, she spoke more about her life experiences that led her to focus on representing Indigenous people, the UN conference, and her favourite Indigenous food. You can listen to the full episode below, or watch on CHEK+.

Listen to “Ep. 126: Attorney General Niki Sharma” on Spreaker.

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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