Exploring Indigenous Justice Systems in Canada and Around the World


In May 2019, the Department of Justice Canada (JUS) hosted a conference on Indigenous justice systems to create a space for dialogue and relationship-building. This conference brought together over 150 experts from communities, governments, and academia from across Canada and from around the world, each with expertise in, and a passion for, Indigenous justice systems. These leaders joined together to learn about and discuss:

  • Indigenous justice systems that are thriving in Canada and internationally;
  • Challenges that communities are facing in implementing Indigenous justice systems; and
  • Innovative solutions that are being piloted to implement and support Indigenous justice systems.

To support this dialogue, the conference centred upon seven panels highlighting specific areas impacting Indigenous justice systems:

  • Panel #1: Recognizing and Revitalizing Indigenous Laws
  • Panel #2: Enforcement of Indigenous Laws in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities
  • Panel #3: Indigenous Courts in Canada: Experience and Lessons Learned
  • Panel #4: Tribal Courts in the United States of America
  • Panel #5: International Experience with Indigenous Courts
  • Panel #6: Interaction between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Legal Systems
  • Panel #7: Enforcing and Adjudicating Indigenous Laws: The Path Forward

To further encourage meaningful dialogue and relationship-building, the end of each day concluded with Participant Dialogues in which attendees broke into smaller groups for in-depth conversations. Groups then reported back a synopsis of their dialogue to the full conference.

The conference was facilitated by Carlie Chase, President of Nawaska Consulting, the former Director of Partnerships at Reconciliation Canada, and Executive Director of the Legacy of Hope Foundation. Carlie is a member of the Secwepemc Nation from British Columbia. Carlie was assisted by Guy Freedman, President of First Peoples Group, who is Métis from Flin Flon, Manitoba.

The conference was opened and closed by three Elders, Barbara Dumont-Hill of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, Sally Webster, Inuit, and Lois McCallum, Métis, who created an atmosphere of respect for the conference and helped participants set positive intentions for the conference, while understanding that there is hard work ahead.

“The justice system has been unjust. Certainly, for people like me, and I know there’s many of you out there like me. But we need to create a better tomorrow for our children, our grandchildren.”

- Barbara Dumont-Hill

As a reflection of Justice’s commitment to supporting Indigenous justice systems, Nathalie Drouin, Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada, spoke to the participants about the shared commitment to advancing reconciliation in Canada and the several steps the Government of Canada has taken, including support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, issuing the Principles respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and the work to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action.

“The path towards this promising future can only truly be achieved through self-determination. Our goal is to help ensure that the conditions for Indigenous peoples to lead the way are in place.

We know that real progress involves taking a whole of government approach towards this shared goal. It must also involve the co-development of new policies and approaches with Indigenous peoples that recognize the distinct rights of First Nation, Inuit and Métis.”

- Nathalie Drouin, Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada

These sentiments were echoed at the end of the second day by Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and Minister of Democratic Institutions, who spoke about his experience as a Ugandan-Asian immigrant and his work as a constitutional litigator. These experiences taught him about the things that Canada does well, and what still needs work. He emphasized the need to hear from Indigenous communities about Indigenous law and to create a space to discuss how legal traditions can co-exist within Canada’s constitutional framework.

The conference took place at the Canadian Museum of History on Algonquin territory. The elders, organizers, facilitators, and participants recognize and are grateful for the co-operation the Algonquin peoples in the stewardship of this territory.

This document is a summary of what we heard.

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