An Alberta judge faced with sentencing a woman for manslaughter last summer expressed concern about how people of Indigenous descent are treated in the courts.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice James Langston sentenced Barbara Elizabeth Holmes in August to five years in prison. His written decision was released Thursday.
“This is an Aboriginal offender. She is in a system which is imposed upon Aboriginal people and I use that word deliberately,” Langston wrote.
“Our history, in relation to Aboriginal people, is one of deliberate destruction. We have systematically destroyed their culture, their way of living. We have done everything we can to take from them their sense of spirituality and identity.”
Holmes had been charged with second-degree murder for fatally stabbing her husband John in 2016, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
The Crown was seeking a sentence of eight years, while the defence asked for five.
Langston said he understands courts must follow the rules, but suggested they are part of a “system that has overrun Aboriginal people” and been in place for so long they expect that kind of treatment.
“I am not trying to be a philosopher, but it is time that we recognized … what we have done to Aboriginal peoples,” he wrote. “And we should attempt through any means that we can, to re-establish and assist in re-establishing the culture, which worked quite well before we got here.”
Almost 20 years ago, the Supreme Court laid out principles in what has come to be known as the Gladue decision. It directs judges to consider alternative sentencing for Indigenous offenders and to take into account their backgrounds and the influence of broad systemic factors.
“So how many years is appropriate for this woman to stay in jail, to stay isolated, locked up, away from her family, away from her community, away from the support mechanisms which we all recognize would be advantageous to her?” Langston wrote about Holmes’s sentencing.
“This was a singular, aberrance, inexcusable, unexplainable act, but yet we will send this woman to jail to deter others who find themselves in that inexcusable, unexplained situation.”
Langston said he took into account that Holmes had no previous criminal record and that her mother, who was Indigenous, had been severely affected by her time in residential schools.
His sentence of five years factored in credit for time served.
“I think there is great value in this woman being able to reconnect and connect more fully with her heritage,” he ruled.
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