The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Ethnocultural Groups
The Justice System in Canada
A Review of the Issues

Public Legal Education & Information


Public legal education and information (PLEI) can be called the "front door" of the justice system. It is necessary to help people avoid legal problems when a problem with the law arises. While the public does not generally have information about the law, it is important to ensure they become aware of it, especially immigrants and disadvantaged members of indigenous minorities. Problems relating to the justice system affect both immigrants and indigenous minorities in different ways. For recent imm grants, not having basic legal information must be daunting. A recent immigrant without the same familiarity of the society as a native-born or a long-term resident may have culturally based misinformation or apprehensions from a country of origin with a repressive and corrupt justice system, a language barrier, or be facing systemic and overt discrimination. This immigrant may then be bewildered or even frightened by his or her ignorance about the law and how the legal system works in everyday life.<33>

A frequently stated truism is that the law touches the daily lives of people in a myriad of ways. This relates not so much to contact with the criminal justice system as it does to the nurnerous regulations in civil and administrative law such as requirements and qualifications, benefits and entitlements of many kinds relating to administrative bureaucracies, and other non-criminal law domains. The frequency of occurrence of lawrelated problems, and the broad variety of legal problems revealed in the "Client's Study" testifies to the extent to which the law affects many aspects of the lives of immigrants in concrete ways.<34>

Because the law is such an integral part of our daily lives, it is important to make PLEI an essential aspect of the process of integration and adaptation to a new society. In this regard, PLEI has more than one layer of importance. At one level, legal knowledge is important for people to be aware of the legal aspects of problems, to know where and how to seek help, to be aware of benefits and entitlements, and to be able to interact with the numerous administrative systems in a modern society with a complex legal system that extensively regulates relations between people and between people and institutions.<35>

At another level, legal knowledge speaks to the issues of integration into society, and to national unity. It was argued in Chapter One that the justice system is a key social institution in society. Justice as a concept is highly symbolic and of fundamental importance to people. If racism is widespread, or is perceived to be widespread in a multiethnic society, justice, in the broad sense where social justice and the justice system blend, is critically important to the social harmony of the nation. No student of history or modern society can ignore the power there is in ethnic conflict to disrupt the peace and order of a society. Through legal knowledge, such factors as the comfort derived from familiarity with the system, the lack of fear of public authorities, the experienced avoidance of disadvantage,- the positive experience of rights or entitlements claimed and enjoyed, and the perception of treatment with fairness and- with dignity by a powerful social system lead to identification with, rather than alienation from, the justice system. Because of the encompassing importance of the concept of justice and the central position of the justice system in the institutional framework of society, integrating people into the society through the education of the justice system can significantly contribute to social harmony and national unity.

Although most of the arguments above reflect the immigrant experience, they could also be said about indigenous ethnic minorities. Most of the research relating to PLEI and ethnocultural groups, however, has focussed on immigrants. There has been little research on ethnic minorities like native-born peoples or Blacks who are descendants of those who came to Canada with the Loyalist migration more than 200 years ago. More research effort on indigenous groups is essential by policy and research divisions in government, by program developers in public legal information organizations and in all public and private organizations that must address the legal information requirements of their clientele.

2.1 Major Issues

In his comprehensive review of the literature on multiculturalism and justice,<36> Etherington identifies several recurrent themes relating to public legal education and information. A number of the more important ones are discussed below.

2.1.1 More Culturally Sensitive and Accessible PLEI

Etherington identifies the need for more culturally sensitive and accessible PLEI repeatedly in his review of public legal information issues.<37> More recently, Burtch and Reid point out that with an expected quarter million immigrants coming to Canada each year, there must be an on- going priority to continually examine the experiences, barriers and needs with respect to immigrants and legal information.<38> Thus cultural sensitivity and appropriateness, and accessibility in its many aspects, are the sine qua non of the issue of PLEI for immigrants.

2.1.2 Eliminating Fears about the Canadian Justice System

A recent study on the needs of immigrants in British Columbia concludes that "negative experience with law- enforce] lent agencies in the country of origin was identified as the primary reason for not cooperating with, or seeking the protection of, Canadian justice system."<39> The Law Courts Education Society in Vancouver has recognized this problem and has initiated some research to determine what elements of justice systems in the countries of origin of certain ethnocultural groups form the basis of misperceptions about the Canadian justice system. The Society has started to develop programs based on this information to overcome culturally based misperceptions of the Canadian justice system that inhibit contact with the justice system or lead to inappropriate behaviour toward justice system actors.<40> These misperceptions can inhibit participation in the justice system as witnesses or jurors, or prevent people from accessing the system for services available to victims or to seek protection. Ultimately, it relates to confidence in the rule of law and the Canadian system of justice, and is an area that PLEI programming should continue to address.

2.1.3 Emphasis on Canadian Legal Culture

There are many aspects of Canadian law and legal processes which are unfamiliar to immigrants and indigenous minorities. With respect to immigrants, some behaviours which are illegal in most countries may be "more honoured in the breach" in countries of origin. It is not a question of being unaware that Canadian law prohibits certain acts, but of knowing how the Canadian legal system is likely to respond to certain acts. Impaired driving and spousal assault,<41> for example, are two areas where immigrants are often unaware of the severe reaction within the Canadian justice system which is influenced by such social movements as gender equality or emerging norms against impaired driving. Prostitution is another type of illegal behaviour where some immigrants do not understand the efforts to discourage the activity, at least in certain areas.<42> Further, new immigrants may not understand Canadian "legal culture" as it is affected by other general social movements or cultural changes.

This lack of understanding which may be accompanied by a sense of indignation and unfairness about having been charged, can lead to further problems for accused as they are drawn into the legal system. In a case of family violence, for example, an accused person may feel indignant about the justice system invading the private domain of the home and family. Such indignation may affect the behaviour of the accused in police custody and in court, which may be perceived by justice system actors as "an attitude problem," and thereby lead to harsher treatment than what might otherwise have occured.<43> This suggests that PLEI programs should attempt to identify and focus on these broader aspects of legal culture to help new Canadians better understand Canadian society and its legal culture, as well as to be able to anticipate the actions and responses of the justice system.

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