By Amanda Dodge, BA (Hons), LLB, LLM, Program Director at Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan and Coordinator of the Anti-Racism Network’s Justice League
Those who work within the criminal justice system have long observed its disproportionate scrutiny and punitive impact upon people of colour. In Saskatchewan, Indigenous peoples are particularly affected. Advocacy for a more equitable system has often named redress for racial injustice.
In 2018 the Anti-Racism Network was established in Saskatchewan; applying an anti-racist lens to our society and its sectors. What is unique and significant about the anti-racist lens is that it goes beyond the laudable efforts of cross-cultural understanding and inclusion to the core of why and how systemic racism exists. It focusses on the origins and propagation of racism within systems, identifying the power dynamics, vested interests and false narratives which allow it to endure. The Network has developed tools to help agencies and organizations become more anti-racist: training modules, an equity indicators assessment tool, and a policy review tool. This work equally values process and outcome.
By 2020, the Network had grown exponentially and adopted a committee structure. The justice subcommittee, nicknamed the “Justice League”, is made up of representatives from justice organizations and people with lived experience with the justice system. Our work began with a discussion paper on systemic racism in Saskatchewan’s criminal justice system, to serve as a starting point of discussion with stakeholders.
The paper names how the historic and fundamental architecture of the justice system is meant to marginalize Indigenous peoples, for largely economic reasons. It identifies systemic factors that lead to the criminalization of Indigenous peoples and explores the retributive system in which they find themselves. Its evidence-based approach relies on numerous reports about the disproportionate harm experienced by Indigenous peoples in policing, courts and corrections. All this forms the basis of our calls for change, which include: the provision of anti-oppressive education to all justice system actors; secure and sustainable financial investment in community-based networks that support criminalized people; adoption of a community policing model and sovereign Indigenous policing; multi-sectoral teams to respond to people in crisis; adoption of restorative justice at the core, not only the fringes, of the system; sustainable funding to alternatives to incarceration; and supports for prisoner reintegration.
Our next step has been building relationships with decision-makers in the criminal justice system, with the goal of equipping their efforts to address systemic racism and continue walking alongside them as change occurs and is evaluated. We have had conversations at the intersection of race and the justice system with leaders at the Saskatoon Police Service, RCMP, Ministry of Justice and Correctional Service Canada. We are encouraged by the receptivity we find. We have made some headway around education as a start. As these stakeholders grapple with the complex and imbedded aspects of systemic racism, we hope to continue to journey with them towards a more anti-racist justice system.