On Monday, we used Saskatchewan Provincial Court Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as an example of the kind of candidate the special parliamentary committee responsible for appointing British Columbia's new child and youth representative might have been looking for. And today, the Times Colonist's Lindsay Kines and Jeff Rud confirmed Ms. Turpel-Lafond has, in fact, been selected to fill that post. What an astounding coincidence! So what, you may wonder, is her background?
Well, in addition to being "the first treaty Indian and the first aboriginal woman to serve on the bench in Saskatchewan," Ms. Turpel-Lafond recently made headlines as one of the judges the Indigenous Bar Association would like to have seen elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada. But a review of Saskatchewan press clippings shows she hasn't had any trouble getting in the newspapers.
Since becoming a member of the judiciary, Ms. Turpel-Lafond has been a strong advocate for those with fetal alcohol syndrome. Speaking to Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education conference delegates last year, she wondered why those with the syndrome aren't "being diagnosed until they are 12 and in my courtroom? That is a big issue. Poor attachment by the family to health-care roviders is an issue. Poor access to diagnostic services, particularly in the north, is a major, major issue. Poor access to pre-natal health care is a big issue."
In 2003, Ms. Turpel-Lafond suggested widespread reforms in the justice system to accomodate fetal alcohol sufferers. "I think we should look at FAS and (opening therpeutic courts where you would have teams associated with it do the diagnosis, do the planning, and monitor the youth in the community," she said in an interview with The Star-Phoenix's Lana Haight.
And she tried to enact some of those reforms herself just two years after being appointed to the bench. In May 2000, Ms. Turpel-Lafond issued a controversial probation order for a 16-year-old believed to have fetal alcohol syndrome. That order would have seen the assign the teen "a youth worker with special training and understanding in the organic brain impariment" and that his care "an in-patient treatment centre with an aboriginal focus...special education supports, and special supports in terms of reference" - services that weren't being offered by the department of social services.
As a result, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, struck down that order, stating "There is nothing in the (Young Offenders) Act that gives a youth court judge power to order governments to create programs no matter how badly they are needed." Although the court acknowledged "her motivation and that of her colleagues in similar cases is to try to break the cycle of criminal behaviour."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond also made it into the papers in 1999 after speaking to a Federation of Saskatchewan Indian First Nations accountability and governance conference. At that conference, she said "The media would have us believe the problem of accountability is a crisis in leadership in Indian country in Saskatchewan and Canada. I don't agree. I think this is a far too limited view of the problem and only serves to reinforce some very profund stereotypes that are out there about Indian people."
According The Star-Phoenix's James Parker, Ms. Turpel-Lafod - a former legal counsel to the federation - blamed "inadequate budgets, federal legislation that limits the autonomy of band governments, extreme poverty that creates huge economic disparities on reserves and historical injustices that have left aboriginal people culturally devastated, politically marginalized and economically disadvantaged" for those accountability problems.
That outspokeness prompted the Saskatchewan Party call on government to impose conduct guidelines for provincial court judges. And, in a subsequent story, Mr. Parker paraphased then First Nations Coalition for Accountabiloity president as saying "Turpel-Lafond's comments could be a major setaback in the battle to make band governments more accountable." Although, in fairness, just a year before, the soon-to-be judge was waging her own war for more accountability among those governments - recommending the adoption of conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of ethics by First Nations leaders.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Turpel-Lafond has also expressed concern about aboriginals caught up in the justice system. Although, in an interview with Mr. Parker soon after being appoint to the bench, she said, "The biggest mistake people can make about me is that I have no independence in my perspective, that I'm there inside the system as an advocate for Indian people. I'm there as an advocate for justice and as public servant or everyone in Saskatchewan."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond's resume includes a doctorate in law from Harvard University, as well as being named one of the top 20 Canadian leaders for the 21st century by Time magazine in 1999. She is married to former Saskatoon Tribal Council vice-chief George Lafond.