Elders’ Council named 2020 Guthrie Award recipient

Elder Donna Debassige, in composite photo at bottom right, is a member of the Elders’ Council, which is the 2020 recipient of the Guthrie Award, presented by the Law Foundation of Ontario. The Guthrie Award is the Law Foundation of Ontario’s premier award to honour those who have championed the cause of getting better access to justice.

Council includes a Manitoulin Island resident

TORONTO – The Law Foundation of Ontario has announced that the Elders Council, which includes a representative of Manitoulin Island, is the 2020 recipient of the Guthrie Award, the foundation’s signature award to recognize exceptional access-to-justice champions.

The Elders’ Council, which includes elder Donna Debassige, an Anishinaabe-kwe of the Fish Clan from Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island) and a member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories, was established using methodologies to support the work of the Indigenous Justice Division (IJD) of the Ministry of the Attorney General. 

The council holds positions for up to 13 Indigenous elders who are knowledge keepers from across Ontario. The elders were approached to participate based on their personal leadership strengths and specialized knowledge. The council is gender-balanced and reflective of the diverse Indigenous nations and regions of the province, according to the Anishinabek News in a release on February 10. 

The Elders’ Council is committed to supporting the reclamation of the Indigenous legal system and strengthening justice for Indigenous people in the province. The council works to guide the IJD and its staff in an effort to repair the relationship between the Ministry of the Attorney General and Indigenous communities within Ontario.

“The elders bring a compelling truth and integrity to their work,” said Linda Rothstein, the foundation’s board chair, in the release. “By sharing their knowledge and lived experiences directly with those within the justice sector, the Elders’ Council is helping to transform not just opinions but policies and laws that could bring about meaningful change and improve access to justice for Indigenous people across the province.”

Quite unprecedented in other jurisdictions, the Elders’ Council has provided formal advice directly to three attorneys general for Ontario, as well as to staff at all levels of government across various ministries and divisions.

The Elders’ Council also helped develop and co-facilitate Bimickaway, which is an award-winning, 17.5-hour Indigenous cultural competency training for justice sector workers. Bimickaway is an Anishinaabemowin word meaning “to leave footprints.” Participants consistently provide feedback that the elders’ contributions are the most valuable and transformative part of the curriculum and help them understand the real-life and ongoing impact of the government laws and policies that are discussed in the training. Since 2016, more than 5,900 people have completed the training and it has a long waiting list.

The Elders’ Council has also educated the sector and the public through: presentations and facilitated conversations such as those at the Sharing Our Justice Bundles Gathering, ReconciliACTION Forum, and Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights Dialogue forum’s consultations, such as providing recommendations to the Independent Review of Ontario Corrections, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls expert hearings, and Indigenous design elements for the new Toronto Courthouse.

The council provides one-on-one support to families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and to families involved in coroner’s inquests; co-facilitation of family circles through the IJD’s family information liaison unit services, which brings coroners, police officers and crown prosecutors together to provide information directly to family members about their missing or murdered loved one’s case.

“The elders change the hearts and minds of government employees by creating respectful forums for dialogue,” said Kimberly Murray, assistant deputy attorney general, Indigenous Justice Division, who nominated the Elders’ Council for the Guthrie Award. “In all of its work, the Elders’ Council has had a deep and transformative impact on everyone with whom they have interacted.”