Navigating the justice system can be particularly challenging for people who face systemic barriers based on race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, etc. Internship placements provide a unique opportunity for PBSC volunteers to develop skills, empathy and deep understanding of the functioning of the justice system — and to respond to systemic barriers. In Ottawa and Saskatoon, PBSC Program Coordinators identified particular community needs and opportunities that led to the development of two student pro bono internship projects.
PBSC Program Coordinators in Ottawa worked with the Odawa Native Friendship Centre to develop a unique placement for University of Ottawa volunteers. PBSC volunteer Paula Ethans explains the project:
This is an Odawa project that works with Indigenous accused to help them navigate Ottawa’s courthouse. It aims to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people within Canada’s criminal justice system. When an Indigenous offender is referred to the Indigenous Criminal Courtworker Programme (ICCP) (and wants to participate), the court worker informs them of their rights, responsibilities and options. Then, as part of the diversion program, the ICCP helps to facilitate a healing plan for these individuals in the hopes of avoiding jail time. If the client successfully complete their healing plan, their charge is withdrawn and nothing is on their criminal record.
During her first month as a volunteer, Paula has been learning the ropes by shadowing Odawa’s court worker, Jennifer Valiquette, sitting in on the new Indigenous Peoples Court, and meeting with criminal lawyer Connie D’Angelo to debrief on legal issues. Eventually Paula will take on a more active role working directly with clients, assisting with reports, and conducting research.
Similarly, in Saskatoon, an internship was developed with the Saskatoon Criminal Legal Aid Office at the Mental Health Strategy Court (MHS). The MHS Court operates on a therapeutic model, providing supports and resources such as psychiatric assessment, counselling referral, assistance securing housing, and other connections to community.
Even though Tristan Campbell is just over a month into her volunteer placement, she has already identified many ways this experience is making a difference. She notes that:
Working with the Legal Aid Mental Health Strategy Court Project has been an experience that has opened my eyes to a different part of the criminal justice system. Not only have I already learned so much, while only being there for such a short time, I have realized how important it is for students to become involved. Because of the workload involved for the lawyer, I feel assisting the lawyer throughout the process at court not only helps the lawyer with a lot of the small things, it shows the clients that there are more support persons there for them. I feel that the clients I have seen have appreciated having more support people there, even if I’m just there to chat with them about everyday things before the lawyer gets to the legal matters.
PBSC placements in courthouses and other venues where students work directly with clients are very popular with students, support workers and clients, although they are resource intensive to establish and supervise. The experiences of Campbell and Evans thus far demonstrate why the investment is worth it. In our experience, students who request dynamic and responsive projects such as these internships do so because they are committed to affecting positive change within the community.