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Indigenous Peoples face ongoing struggles working within legal institutions that are alien to their traditional ways knowing and seeking justice. The Indian Act and other contemporary and historical laws and programs have criminalized and assaulted the traditional ways of life of Indigenous Peoples. For Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people, this has included participation in their traditional feast system and speaking their language. Poverty, isolation, and intergenerational harms from discriminatory systems such as residential schools have compounded existing vulnerabilities felt by First Nations in the justice system. This disconnect is a major cause of over-representation within Canada’s prison system. While accounting for only three percent of Canada’s population, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people made up twelve percent of Canada’s federal prison population in 1997. Within a historical context, this has meant that the prison system has taken on similar characteristics for younger Indigenous Peoples to the residential schools experienced by their parents.
The Upper Skeena Counselling & Legal Assistance Society (USCLAS) was created in 1977 in response to the issue of First Nations people’s over-representation in Canada’s prison system. With Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people facing particular risks due to their isolation from legal services, USCLAS endeavoured to provide people being incarcerated with access to legal advice and legal information. Over the past three decades, it has met the changing legal needs of these peoples by adapting to Canada’s evolving legal landscape. This has resulted in its mission broadening to include additional services, recognizing community needs for family law and poverty law services and advocacy. Nonetheless, USCLAS continues its focus on First Nations people’s over-representation in prison populations.
USCLAS has had to respond to British Columbia’s legal aid crisis. In 2002, under the BC Liberal provincial government, provincial legal aid budgets were cut by forty percent. This led to the Legal Services Society closing down all legal aid offices in British Columbia, including USCLAS. With help from our Board members, the Law Foundation’s sponsorship, community support, and legal aid contracts, USCLAS managing lawyer Linda Locke was able to secure USCLAS continuing foothold in Gitxsan territory. Increasing cuts to funding has meant that USCLAS has had to expand its service to a wider geographical area over time, stretching from Burns Lake to Haida Gwaii. Similarly, the increasing geographic scope has been met with an increasing community scope: USCLAS now also responds to legal needs of non-Indigenous inhabitants of the Northwest.