Dianne Grenier currently works as a Supervisory Duty Counsel in Niagara. She was called to the bar in 1985 and has been a lawyer for approximately 35 years. Grenier’s time during private practice mainly focused on litigation, estate litigation, some real estate, wills, power of attorneys, and more. She worked mainly in family and criminal defence law for 20 years.
From there, she became a full-time employee of Legal Aid Ontario about 15 and a half years prior where she continued working in family and criminal law. Since 2015 Grenier has been focused on family law advice in the courthouse and over the phone.
Criminal law has been a big interest of hers but there has been a great need in family law.
[Legal Aid is limited to Immigration law, Criminal law, and Family law (which children’s aid matters fall under). There are two other offshoot clinics in Niagara. Legal Aid offshoots are the clinics that do tribunals and handle landlord and tenant issues, ODSP, etc.]
- What does an effective justice system mean to you in regard to Indigenous matters?
Legal Aid has had an Aboriginal/Indigenous justice strategy for several years. I have been on that committee since 2016. The purpose of this strategy is to determine how we can better connect and service these communities, how to address specific issues from a legal aid perspective (which is a limited part of the justice system). We are trying to address the Indigenous overrepresentation in jails and prison systems.
It is important to recognize particular Indigenous approaches to justice systems which often means someone might not stand up for themselves as well as they should. They need to have lawyers and Legal Aid has been pretty proactive about providing legal aid certificates rather than duty counsel for family and criminal cases. Legal aid has also tried to address a lot of the previously mentioned issues but only from the standpoint that they can – such as providing legal representation to help. 10 years ago Legal Aid had Gladue training and a panel so lawyers had to undergo this process in order to be aware of all aspects required in such cases.
To me, an effective justice system means taking all of the differences into account. There is an overenthusiasm by Indigenous clients who want to plead guilty – in part to get it over with but it is also specific to accepting more than their share of responsibility. The criminal justice system does not understand that, the system will take advantage of this overenthusiasm and they have. This may also be why there is overrepresentation in jails.
In the Indigenous legal system it’s more of a circle. There is a responsibility to the community and cases are dealt with more appropriately. The Canadian justice system is starting to try and address and balance those issues through Indigenous courts. It’s the only way to improve.
- In your opinion, how can someone in a legal/justice position become the best ally possible to the Indigenous community?
The Canadian justice system has a punitive origin and it’s challenging to break out of. It’s important to have an ally within the Canadian justice system, to integrate the Aboriginal/Indigenous way of dealing with harm & crime and those issues so that the understanding of responsibility will create an ally – it’s all about working together.
- Transportation and sexual exploitation were huge issues identified in the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry that contributed to overall safety. What recommendations do you have for Indigenous women and families to enhance their own safety knowing that our region here is also in a ‘transportation crisis’ and is a high-risk area for human trafficking?
Niagara region is at a border so this creates a bigger issue when it comes to human trafficking. Everyone needs to know that they should phone a lawyer. They can get free legal advice on the phone with Legal Aid. If you’re in any kind of situation and you’re not sure it’s a legal problem, reach out and get legal advice. If you’re wrong, they can direct you to perhaps a clinic etc. and you will get a form of legal assistance. If it is an issue they can help you with, you will get the advice you need upfront. Err on the side of caution and make the call (1-800-668-8258 for Legal Aid).
They will take basic information they can provide you with a profile and client number so a lawyer can be assigned to you according to the area of law you’re calling about. Understandably, there’s a certain level of distrust in providing identifiable information but it is important to know that this information is not used for any other reason other than Legal Aid’s internal purpose of calling you back to give you advice and to have a certain level of continuity. This information is kept completely private and your summary legal advice (SLA) lawyer will not see our file here at Legal Aid.
There is a big need to try and connect so we can give you legal advice. Going into a courthouse can also be an issue but now it can be done over the phone which could potentially be more accessible to some.
- What are some things you think can be improved upon in order to establish stronger relationships and safer communities?
Taking into account the differences between the dominant society and the ways of the Indigenous people which are different and more personal, more directed to individuals and creating harmony, and trying to rectify the problem instead of punishing would help.
- What is being done to develop the trust of Indigenous communities in the Canadian justice system?
The service and help provided must be found to be important and useful. Legal Aid is trying really hard to create that trust through Gladue training and panels, putting more of an emphasis on the Aboriginal/Indigenous justice strategy, to make connections to communities so they have the information available to them.
It’s important to get the knowledge out to the communities so that they know they have an ally though Legal Aid. It should also be noted that typically you’re eligible for more supports when you self-identify even though many are wary of doing that. Use it or lose it! You can also use your own Indigenous-specific resources and let those resources connect you to justice systems.
- There is much to be done to eliminate systemic racism and colonialism (such as the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system) – how do you see this being addressed and rectified?
There needs to be a focus on the criminal justice system. I’ve personally been involved in discussions with local organizations such as Family & Children’s Services (FACS), Niagara Chapter – Native Women Inc. (NCNW), and Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre (FENFC) where we have worked together to come up with a protocol to address such issues. Prior to the pandemic, it was in the works and FACS has been conceding to the Indigenous community (mainly NCNW and FENFC) to take a greater role with their child advocacy workers in children’s aid matters which is a huge step in reducing such involvement in the justice system to keep cases out of court, keep kids out of care, avoid CAS taking in children, and to allow Indigenous organizations to take the lead to work out concerns or allow children to go to kin or Indigenous families so that they can stay within the community. CAS is also allowing Indigenous people to take care of these issues themselves which is huge when compared to the historical sixties scoop and so on. This needs to keep going and there is every reason to believe it will. Indigenous-led action needs to become the main goal not just because of the difficulties during the pandemic but because we need to accelerate this goal to keep people out of the court system when it comes to children’s aid issues. There must be a greater emphasis to allow these communities to self-regulate, use other forms of intervention, and so on. It’s the only way to reduce the overrepresentation. Mainstream media can be very inaccurate. Indigenous people should have different treatment – it’s not a bad thing, it’s not ‘special treatment,’ we need it in order to get back to a level playing field. We need to release people from jail and stop apprehending children to address the numbers and accept the other extremely viable options to change these things.
The criminal justice system has a hard time not laying a charge. Diversion is a huge factor to solve things more appropriately as well. We must give more respect and power to self-governing approaches and apply justice appropriately. These practices haven’t transferred to the family court area as much even though they work for matrimonial homes on the reservation but there isn’t recognition of that.
- What is being done to stop violence or abuse against Indigenous women?
There is less ability to reach out and get out of such situations during the pandemic. Anyone experiencing abuse can call into the Legal Aid 1-800 number and you will be asked questions related to abuse (which is not limited to domestic/physical violence, it also includes psychological, emotional, mental and verbal abuse). This is an important issue to Legal Aid – such circumstances suggest that the client needs their own lawyer and a certificate to help pay for it.
Lawyers dealing with such cases also need a certain level of sensitivity towards their clients (especially non-Indigenous lawyers) to understand how to best serve these individuals. We have had lawyers go through the Working with Indigenous People training program as well.
- How is Ontario recognizing the Indigenous practice of self-governance such as with the Akwesasne legal system?
The end result is the idea of self-governance which must be recognized more. Self-governance is being recognized in Ontario and this shows through the agreement with the local Children’s Aid Society (CAS) and the Aboriginal/Indigenous justice system.
This needs to be happening outside of Niagara as well – the memo of understanding can be shared with other CAS locales and their local Indigenous communities such as that in Hamilton. It happens by example and following the same pattern instead of recreating the wheel should be the goal.
It’s also important for families (especially those with a non-Indigenous parent) to outline that there are non-Indigenous family members so that the court can reinforce Indigenous-specific services where needed so that the child has access to these resources.
- What do you recommend to Indigenous women who want to enter the law field?
You will get a lot of support, there is greater interest in having Indigenous people in all professions and there are even less Indigenous women. First, know that you’re a woman and this means a lot. I graduated in the first class which had a 50-50 split between men and women. You will encounter sexism and other barriers but at some point you have to recognize that you can’t care about someone else’s opinion. Brush it off and don’t let anyone make you feel badly in any way. There is an underrepresentation here and it’s time to pick up the speed – it’s long overdue! Just do it – believe it, “yes, I can do this.”
Although the legal field can be interesting and difficult to navigate, you’ll be contributing far beyond what you believe in your mind. The contribution you will make when you come out will be extremely important because people will be able to relate to you. That’s why it’s important to advertise or make it known that you are an Indigenous person. You will definitely be busy when you get out.
There are options for tuition coverage so money should not be an issue. Legal Aid also has a great Q&A informational side that was developed in the Fall of 2019. I was one of the lawyers on the review team. It’s really excellent if you want to take a look.
For more information:
Non family law: