David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Retired Brandon Judge Speaks Out

Brandon Sun, December 22, 2014 - David McConkey

Any discussions with retired judge Brian Giesbrecht are most informative and thought-provoking. He has observations from his work and is willing to speak out – something he could not do during his career. I am a friend and I wanted to share some of Giesbrecht’s ideas so I invited him for a conversation over coffee.

Giesbrecht grew up in Winnipeg and started practising law there. He then worked as a staff lawyer for Legal Aid Manitoba and moved in 1975 to open its first Brandon office. In 1976 he was appointed as a judge. He concluded his career as Associate Chief Judge and retired in 2008. You may remember reading in the paper about his innovative sentences that reflected his special concern for young people.
He found especially troubling the disproportionate number of aboriginals in his courtroom. Many of the aboriginal youth whom he saw in court, Giesbrecht says, “were as bright and capable as any other kids.” But “many came from families that had been on welfare on reserves for generations and just didn’t have the same chance to succeed.”
Giesbrecht thinks that aboriginal people, and Canada as a whole, missed a real opportunity in 1969. The then-new government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – with Jean Chr├ętien as Indian Affairs Minister – proposed abolishing the Indian Act. There would be compensation for aboriginal treaty rights, and there would be equality of citizenship with other Canadians. Giesbrecht applauds that attempt to get rid of an “outdated, racist and patriarchal system.”
But that opportunity was lost when the aboriginal leadership dismissed the government initiative out of hand. By not engaging the government in developing a forward-looking concept, Giesbrecht says, “aboriginal leaders made a terrible mistake.”

Giesbrecht is forthright about the damage done. "The welfare cheque has been the poison pill for aboriginal people,” he says. “In too many cases it has created chronic dependence that inevitably leads to huge social problems.”

He is very critical of mainstream Canadian society, not only for often having racist attitudes, but also for going along with racial segregation. Giesbrecht compares our society in Canada to the society under apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid, he points out, was modeled on Indian reserves in Canada. Because we have grown up with the system we think it is normal. “It’s amazing to me that this topic is not even discussed.”
But Giesbrecht reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. “There are many highly successful aboriginal people everywhere,” he says, “who are living proof that aboriginal people can succeed and hang onto their cultural values.” 

Giesbrecht does not underestimate the cost or complexities involved in dismantling the old and creating something new. But he challenges everyone to imagine a future where the “negative statistics associated with aboriginals will be a thing of the past.”
After my conversation with Giesbrecht, I got thinking about the valuable role that retired people like him can play in drawing attention to big issues. Like the concerns he was raising here, and also those in the two previous columns: climate change and the War on Drugs.
Those who are still working usually shy away from controversy. There are time constraints, career concerns, even legal restrictions. Retired people, however, have more time to reflect and do research. They also have the freedom to say what’s on their mind. They can finally say out loud, “This is ridiculous.”

We see this with the War on Drugs. Driving much of the international debate today are retired government officials. They now are free to say publicly that their own drug policies were a failure.
I was especially struck by Giesbrecht’s point about how we view as normal the society we grow up in. Young people in Canada have grown up in a society with great racial disparities. As well, they have grown up with the drug war and the spectre of climate change. But it seems normal to think the best we can do is to ignore these big problems.

Young people should be engaged. They are less racist, more environmentally aware, and more open to change than older people. But the young tend to be not involved politically.

Here is where retired people can help: by inviting youth to talk about and take action on otherwise taboo topics.

To the younger generation, elders can offer their experience and their wisdom. Elders also can offer something perhaps even more important: their freedom to speak out.

* * * *
See also:  

Reflections on the War on Drugs

Perception and Reality of Crime Not Always the Same

Issues for the Next Election?

A More Thoughtful Approach to Racial Issues is Required

Prime Minister Obama?

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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