Judge drops by protest camp at Saskatchewan legislature that he ruled on last week

REGINA — A Saskatchewan judge who ruled a Metis man could stay on the lawn of the provincial legislature to finish his hunger strike against high suicide rates visited the protester Sunday as the demonstration drew to an end.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Graeme Mitchell spoke with Tristen Durocher, who fasted while living for 44 days in a teepee in Regina's Wascana Park following a 635-kilometre march from northern Saskatchewan that began earlier this summer.

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"To the politicians who are going to scream bias, bias, bias because a judge who signed his decision wanted to see the freedom of expression and freedom of religion that his profession is supposed to be fighting and rooting for, by all means go ahead, because you just look that much more ridiculous," Durocher told reporters Sunday following the judge's visit.

The provincial government took Durocher to court after the 24-year-old started camping in a teepee in the park, arguing Durocher was violating park bylaws that prohibit overnight camping and saying his presence posed a safety risk.

But Mitchell dismissed the government's application for a court order to remove Durocher, saying the bylaws and trespassing notice against him were unconstitutional.

Justice Minister and Attorney General Don Morgan declined to comment on the judge's presence at the demonstration.

"Out of respect for the independence of the judiciary, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the participation of a Judge of the Court of Queen's Bench in an event with an individual, particularly while that judge is still in the midst of writing the full decision involving that same individual," he said.

Mitchell delivered a basic decision on the camp Friday because of the tight turnaround between the hearing date and conclusion of the fast. He said previously he intends to deliver a ruling that goes into more depth.

According to a document "Ethical Principles for Judges" on the Canadian Judicial Council's website, judges should "consider whether mere attendance at certain public gatherings might reasonably give rise to a perception of ongoing political involvement or reasonably put in question the judge's impartiality on an issue that could come before the court."

The document's stated purpose is to provide ethical guidelines for federally appointed judges. It is not a binding code.

Mitchell could not be reached for comment by The Canadian Press, but before entering the teepee he told the Regina Leader-Post that he "just wanted to come and visit the site."

Durocher's lawyer told a court last week that the ceremonial fast was protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because he's an Indigenous man.

Mitchell acknowledged in his ruling Friday the work that's already been done around reconciliation, including the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

He wrote the fast "represents an admittedly small and personal attempt to encourage all of us to move a little further along in our national journey."

Durocher said the hunger strike ended at sundown on Saturday night, and there was a feast on Sunday before the teepee was to be taken down. Several members of the protest group cut their braids and tied them together in a noose, which they hung on the door of the legislature.

"This won't be the end of Indigenous people coming to the Wascana Park west lawn to voice their grievances in a ceremonial way, and whatever way they choose, protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of our country, because that is their right as citizens," he said.

Durocher's friend, Christopher Merasty, presented Mitchell with a Metis sash. Merasty said the judge put it on with tears in his eyes and continued to wear it as he left.

He said he was honoured Mitchell accepted the sash.

"That right there shows the truth and reconciliation, not only with the Metis, with the First Nations, with everybody here that's advocating for change," Merasty said.

"That is a big step forward in the right direction."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2020.

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