Rumours that the Superior Court is seeking to move jury trials from Manitoulin Island to Laurentian University’s hub centre in Sudbury were confirmed to The Expositor by sources and documents provided late last week and our subsequent investigation did little to quell our concerns. While the jury may still be out, it appears that defence counsels are being asked to schedule dates for jury trials in Sudbury. That smacks very much like something of a fait accompli.
While the court house in Gore Bay may not be an ideal venue, considering the need for physical distancing that the pandemic calls for, and the right to a trial conducted in a timely fashion is an important consideration, there are serious historical issues with jury selection on Manitoulin regarding Indigenous representation in the jury process that we believe significant steps had been taken toward remediation and reconciliation. This step to move trials to Sudbury, if indeed taken, represents an enormous leap backwards.
Another significant concern is the apparent lack of any consultation with First Nations leadership on this issue and the total surprise with which the news has been greeted by local municipal and other community leaders. Since a significant portion the jury trials on Manitoulin (according to some well-informed sources even the preponderance of jury trials) deal with Indigenous people, this is a tremendous breach of reconciliation protocols. With the focus on systemic racism currently reverberating through all levels of the government, we are at a loss as to how such a decision could be contemplated.
The mechanics of the courts are not noted for their compassion, but the imposition of the tremendous costs of this decision on people and communities who are already economically challenged by history and geography is simply unconscionable in a free and democratic society. It should not, and cannot, stand.
That this decision was taken without any attempt to locate a suitable venue on Manitoulin Island, at least to the knowledge of the mayors and chiefs who lead the Island communities, is as much puzzling as it is alarming. It defies simple common sense.
On top of questions of justice and equity, there are the economic impacts on the communities that host the trials. Restaurants and hotels, already reeling from individual tragedies and the pandemic restrictions, not to mention the loss of significant summer trade, are now being faced with the loss of even the tiny respite of the courthouse lunch trade.
All indications The Expositor had at its disposal as of press time Monday point to the decision to move jury trials to Sudbury having already been made. We fervently pray that this is not the case and that wiser heads will prevail before immense pain and hardship is foisted upon communities that have suffered enough, both historically and currently, from the ravages of a justice system that treats them with callous indifference.
We can and must do better.