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Trauma-Informed Lawyering

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


It is barely three weeks into 2023, and families across Canada are already desperately searching for missing women. Most of the missing are Indigenous women like Gabriel Marsden, whose search is led by the Bear Clan Patrol, a volunteer-led initiative focused on using traditional practices to provide personal security to the Indigenous community in inner-city Winnipeg, as well as other cities across Canada.[1]


Artwork titled, "Myrna at Moonrise" by Métis artist Leah Marie Dorion.

Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to go missing than another woman in Canada, and 16 times more likely to be killed or disappeared than a white woman, according to a 2019 public inquiry into missing and murdered women.” [2] From 2001 to 2015, Indigenous women and girls accounted for almost a quarter of female homicides. [3]


As a law student, I can't help but wonder what role my chosen career plays in contributing to these numbers. Furthermore, how can I contribute to redesigning a system that recognizes that the safety and protection of Indigenous women and girls go beyond police responses and investigations?


One thing that I can do is to adopt a culturally-responsive, trauma-informed community-based response to lawyering. A trauma-informed lawyer places the realities of the client's trauma experience at the forefront of engaging with the client and adjusting their practice approach to the client's individual experience. Trauma-informed lawyering requires positioning the lawyer not as an expert "but as a participant in a new relationship.”[4]


A “trauma-informed approach is essential for other areas of the legal system- the judiciary and those who worked in the court system.”[5] Perhaps if learning about a trauma-informed approach were a requirement in law school, the shackling of a sexual assault victim, Angela Cardinal, wouldn't have happened, or someone in the judicial process would have spoken up about the appalling treatment of the victim.


A common thread in my research this week is how the criminal justice system, as it is now, is a place that retraumatizes the victim, sometimes even leading to more harm. [6] This experience can lead to victims choosing not to come forward.[7] It is clear that the legal profession has to do better.


Perhaps a more compassionate approach by lawyers would result in more women standing up at the first instance of violence, and we, as legal community members, would be able to help them while we still can. What would the legal system look like if we all received training during our legal studies about the trauma-informed approach? Would it create a safer, more welcoming system for Indigenous women to seek legal assistance? [8]


One tool already being used in Canada is a Primary Claims Advocate. Primary Claims Advocates support the legal team through their backgrounds in nursing, social work, and psychology, giving them front-line experience in trauma-informed care. They are trained to support the legal process and assist the legal team in gathering information, as they are skilled in interviewing, assessment, and referral. There are many benefits to including them in your practice, including an interviewing process that results in a “deeper probing of facts and better results. The process is more cost-effective: PCAs can spend multiple hours with their clients for what a mid-to-senior-level lawyer would charge for one hour. Early estimates indicate a cost that is 20 to 30 percent lower than a team of legal professionals only in a similar class action would cost.”[9]Most importantly, it improves the client experience, resulting in better outcomes and, hopefully, helps to address the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis in Canada.


Until next time,


Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Bryce Hoye, “Group Hangs 101 red dresses outside Winnipeg landfill as calls for search for human remains continue” (15 January 2023), online:CBC News <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/brady-landfill-mmiwg-search-red-dresses-1.6714973>. [2] Marie Woolf “Indigenous Women Turn to TikTok to keep spotlight on unsolved missing, murder cases” (13 January 2023), online: The Globe and Mail <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-indigenous-women-turn-to-tiktok-to-keep-spotlight-on-unsolved-missing/>. [3] Ibid. [4] Zena Olijnyk, “Trauma-informed lawyering a useful tool in working with victims, survivors” (26 August 2021), online: Canadian Lawyer Magazine <https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/resources/legal-education/trauma-informed-lawyering-a-useful-tool-in-working-with-victims-survivors/359277>. [5] Ibid. [6] Jill Taylor, “Why does the legal system retraumatize victims? Trauma-informed care is needed” (12 August 2020), online: Canadian Lawyer Magazine <https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/news/opinion/why-does-the-legal-system-retraumatize-victims-trauma-informed-care-is-needed/332403> [Trauma]. [7] Kimberly A. Lonsway & Joanne Archambault, “The "Justice Gap" for Sexual Assault Cases: Future Directions for Research and Reform” (2012) 18(2)Violence Against Women 145 at 146.. doi: 10.1177/1077801212440017. PMID: 22433226. [8] Trauma, supra note 6. [9] Ibid.

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