Broadening Our Horizons: Understanding African Nova Scotian Access to Justice


On June 7-8, 2018, about 45 judges from the Nova Scotia Courts visited the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook to listen and learn from legal experts and community leaders about the challenges facing the African Nova Scotian community, particularly in the context of the justice system.

The conference began with a session for judges only, led by Kimberly Papillon, Esq., an internationally recognized expert on medical, legal and judicial decision-making. Ms. Papillon focused on how emerging research in neuroscience can help decision-makers better understand the effects unconscious processes can have on legal decision-making.

Other sessions engaged both judges and community leaders, and looked at African Nova Scotian history and related contemporary legal issues, the distinct cultural context and needs of African Nova Scotian families and children, and the unique concerns that can arise when working with African Nova Scotians in the criminal justice system.

Judge Jean Whalen introduces the panel on African Nova
Scotians and the criminal justice system.


Nova Scotia judges and African Nova Scotian community leaders started their engagement session by watching the video, "We Are One" by Sylvia Hamilton.

Visting the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre

In the spirit of reconciliation and to learn more about the Indigenous peoples in this province, on March 22-23, 2018, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court (Family Division) held its monthly Bench meeting at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax. The visit gave the judges a chance to tour the Centre and hear from staff about the services and support they provide to the Indigenous community.

Elder Debbie Eisan talks about the artwork on display at the

Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax.


Judges from the Nova Scotia Supreme Court (Family Division) pose for a group shot with Elder Debbie Eisan, Fabian Francis, a housing support worker at the Friendship Centre, and Heather McNeill of Dalhousie Legal Aid.

Visit to Membertou First Nation

On June 9, 2017, members of the Nova Scotia Judiciary visited Membertou First Nation to hear from aboriginal leaders about the challenges facing First Nations communities in Cape Breton, particularly the child welfare system in Nova Scotia.

The meeting was the first of its kind in this province, arranged by the Honourable Lawrence O’Neil in response to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as some alarming trends the Associate Chief Justice noticed while presiding over Family Division matters in Sydney, N.S.

By The Honourable J. Michael MacDonald,
Chief Justice of Nova Scotia


Chief Justice Michael MacDonald (left), Chief Terry Paul and
Associate Chief Justice Lawrence O'Neil in Membertou First Nation.

Truth and Reconciliation Report

As the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Report confirmed, the consequences of the residential school system are too often reflected in the individuals and families who appear before the courts in Nova Scotia. Aboriginal children and young people are drastically over-represented in Nova Scotia’s child welfare system, which often contributes to problems with the law and their own families later in life.

In Nova Scotia, 23 per cent of the children in foster care are Aboriginal, yet the same group makes up only six per cent of the child population. The problem is not unique to this province. Statistics Canada reported that in 2011, 48 per cent of the 30,000 children and youth in foster care across Canada were Aboriginal, even though that group accounted for only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population at the time.

In its report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 calls to action, the first five specifically targeting child welfare. The recommendations include better training and education, stricter monitoring, increased resources, national standards for child apprehension and custody, and increased awareness of the impact of the residential school experience on Aboriginal children and their caregivers.   


Listening and Learning

Leaders from six First Nations communities were invited to the meeting in Membertou, as well representatives from the provincial departments of Justice and Community Services, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the Unama’ki College of Cape Breton and other community-based organizations that support Aboriginal parents, children and families.

“It is significant that these discussions are taking place in our Mi’kmaq community,” said Chief Terrance Paul, Membertou First Nation and Co-Chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs. “It reflects a forward thinking approach on how First Nations need to be part of any process that directly impacts our people.”

The Chief and Associate Chief Justices of the Nova Scotia Appeal Court and the Supreme Court, and all the judges of the Family Division, were also on hand. Their attendance demonstrates the Judiciary’s willingness to adapt to the changing realities and needs of all Nova Scotia families.

“Today’s meeting was a modest first step in addressing the issues behind these legal and social problems,” Associate Chief Justice O’Neil said. “It was an opportunity for us to listen and learn directly from those who are working in these communities every day, and I hope there will be more such opportunities in the future."