Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada


Abstract provided by the publisher:

"An urgent, informed, intimate condemnation of the Canadian state and its failure to deliver justice to Indigenous people by national bestselling author and former Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson.

'The night of the decision in the Gerald Stanley trial for the murder of Colten Boushie, I received a text message from a retired provincial court judge. He was feeling ashamed for his time in a system that was so badly tilted. I too feel this way about my time as both defence counsel and as a Crown prosecutor; that I didn't have the courage to stand up in the court room and shout 'Enough is enough.' This book is my act of taking responsibility for what I did, for my actions and inactions.' -Harold R. Johnson

In early 2018, the failures of Canada's justice system were sharply and painfully revealed in the verdicts issued in the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. The outrage and confusion that followed those verdicts inspired former Crown prosecutor and bestselling author Harold R. Johnson to make the case against Canada for its failure to fulfill its duty under Treaty to effectively deliver justice to Indigenous people, worsening the situation and ensuring long-term damage to Indigenous communities. In this direct, concise, and essential volume, Harold R. Johnson examines the justice system's failures to deliver "peace and good order" to Indigenous people. He explores the part that he understands himself to have played in that mismanagement, drawing on insights he has gained from the experience; insights into the roots and immediate effects of how the justice system has failed Indigenous people, in all the communities in which they live; and insights into the struggle for peace and good order for Indigenous people now." 

Quotations from Peace and Good Order:

“Many times as a prosecutor I had people say to me, “Okay, I will just plead guilty then.” Sometimes when I was really busy and not paying close attention, I might accept their plea. I admit, I probably did accept guilty pleas from people who were innocent. I prefer to think that I didn’t, that when I recognized someone was taking responsibility for an offence they had not committed, I refused to accept their plea. But perhaps even then I unwittingly coerced them into pleading guilty. The usual interaction would go something like this: “Me: Here is what the police said you did.” “Accused: Okay I will just plead guilty then.” “Me: I can’t accept that. If you are not taking responsibility, we’ll have to go to a trial. “Accused: Okay then, yes, it was me. I did it.” And in front of the judge, he would say the magic words that I might have put in his mouth.” – Page 35. 

“One of the solutions proposed to improve the conditions of Indigenous people within the justice system is to increase the number of Indigenous lawyers and judges. But my experience suggests I didn’t change the system; it changed me. To become lawyers, most of us will have experienced seven or more years of post-secondary indoctrination. To be successful in university, we will have bought into a host of principles. We will have learned and accepted concepts that are peculiar to the dominant culture. Our intellect will be altered. We will have learned to think like a settler. Admission to a university requires a high school diploma, so we can add on another twelve years of conditioning. By the time we enter the courtroom, most of us will have spent almost twenty years outside of our culture and much of that time will have been spent outside our communities. We will be changed.” - Page 39

“A staff sergeant in command of a northern community ordered his officers to lay every possible charge for every event. It was his hope that, if the number of charges laid in that community went up, an additional officer would be assigned there. That staff sergeant was just police who know that more charges mean more police. Community leaders often rely upon charge rates, as well as increasing levels of violence in their communities, to demand more officers. Of course, the more officers in a community, the more charges that are laid spirals into meaning more officers are assigned. Yet it seems to me that asking for more police to fix a broken community is like asking for more buckets to fix a leaking roof.

A few people from this region have joined the RCMP, but they are never assigned to their home community. Most RCMP officers here are non-Indigenous, and they do not understand the culture of or the trauma suffered by the people they are meant to serve. For the most part, they do not understand their own trauma, either.

We have a distinct shortage of counsellors, and those that here tell me they are overwhelmed. Corey O’Soup, Saskatchewan’s advocate for children and youth, has said that it can take up to two years for a child in the province to see a counsellor. We would be much better off if instead of three hundred police officers we had three hundred trauma counsellors.” - Page 57.


“The over-incarceration of Indigenous people began in earnest in about 1960 and since then has climbed steadily. The trend continues upwards despite all attempts at finding a solution. Nothing the government or the courts do makes any difference.

Indigenous people keep saying “When you are in Indian country you have to do things differently.” But we keep implementing the same policies that don’t work.

Canada’s administration of justice relies heavily upon the principle of deterrence, the idea, first, that if you punish someone severely enough they won’t commit the same offence again and, second, that people seeing this person punished will likely avoid the same crime themselves. As I’ve shown earlier, alcohol use has a close correlation with criminal activity. Intoxicated people generally do not think about the consequences of their actions. Yet the principle of deterrence relies upon the idea that people do think about the consequences of their actions before they commit an offence. But most people do not. They more often react than act. The most common forms of violence are not planned. The fight simply happens and someone gets hurt or killed.

Despite claims that Canadian courts rely only upon proven evidence, rigorously tested at trial under strict rules to determine what might or might not be admissible, there is no evidence at all that deterrence as used by the courts has any value. In fact all the evidence shows that this type of deterrence does not work. The solicitor General of Canada commissioned a study in 2002 on the effects of prison sentences and intermediate recidivism. The authors looked at 111 studies involving 442,000 offenders and concluded that the longer the prison sentence, the more likely the person would reoffend.” - Page 97-98.

“Our misguided over-reliance upon incarceration is especially apparent when we sentence people suffering from FASD or other mental health problems. We in the administration of law have not found a humane way of dealing with people who have mental health issues. When we sentence them, we don’t take into account their special needs. I’ve heard defence counsel make submissions that their client would be abused in a correctional centre and heard the judge bluntly reply that was none of his business. It was a matter for Correctional Services to address.” - Page 102

“Prisoners learn that violence solves problems. When a dispute arises between prisoners, they cannot rely on the guards of the institution to resolve it. It’s up to them, and violence being the main reason for incarceration for many of them, violence is resorted to in prison as well. In an environment where violence becomes natural, normal and necessary, the tough guy, the enforcer, is looked to as the leader. People sent to prison quickly learn that the tough guy is an envious role and attempt to emulate it.” - Page 105 

“Jails are like cults, and to undo their psychological effects we need deprogrammers. We need a lot of release from custody. Ideally these deprogrammers would take people out into the forest because they are not yet fit to return to the community. There we would reintroduce them to their families, teach them that kindness is not weakness, teach them to make choices and own the consequences, and thus begin the process to commit to the offence they went to jail for to begin with, but also the trauma of committing a crime and the trauma of incarceration.” - Page 107

“To reduce crime, violence, and the over-incarceration of Indigenous Peoples requires an evidence-based approach. Prior to contact, First Nations administered our own laws, and all the evidence suggests we were quite successful at it, In my own Cree territory we had a police force – Semaganisak – who were specially trained and respected. There were border skirmishes with other First Nations, and sometimes one of our own acted inappropriately, but for the most part we had peace and good order.” - Page 121

“If the Dominion assumes jurisdiction over law-making and law enforcement, then it has the duty to create and enforce laws that keep peace and good order. The Dominion has failed in that duty. The present state in many of our communities cannot be described as peaceful or orderly, and the state of affairs between ourselves and others of Her Majesty’s subjects now inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit any part of the said ceded tracts is nearing a race war. Not only has the Dominion usurped our jurisdiction and imposed its own, it has done a very poor job of keeping peace and good order.” -Page 127.

“Now after nearly a decade of close observation and thought, I am convinced that the justice system is making our existence worse. We can no longer wait for Canada or the provinces to make changes. They are clearly not going to come and fix this. It is not in their interest to do so. We have to do it ourselves. We have to reclaim our jurisdiction, establish our own processes. We can co-opt the settler’s system of courts with police and prosecutors and judges, or we can find new mechanisms that work for us. We can work in collaboration with Canada and the provinces, negotiate agreements and funding, but we do not have to ask their permissions; we do not need their approval." - Page 144. 

Publication Information

Johnson, Harold. Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada. Canada: McClelland & Stewart, 2019.

Johnson, Harold R.
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