East Coast adjudicator writes decision in Mi’Kmaw, hopes other courts will follow

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (February 1, 2023, 12:41 PM EST) -- A Nova Scotia small claims court adjudicator who wrote an entire decision in Mi’Kmaw is hoping more courts will start doing the same — including the Supreme Court of Canada.

On Jan. 24, Nova Scotia’s courts released the Dec. 20 small claims decision in MacKinnon v. MacKinnon 2022 NSSM 38, written by adjudicator Tuma Young in the Indigenous language of Mi’Kmaw, as well as English and French.

Young, who currently presides over small claims court in Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, said a motivation for doing it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls for increased cultural competency in Canada’s legal sector.

Tuma Young

Adjudicator Tuma Young

Young’s ruling involves a dispute by a former couple over who gets to keep the dog. Neither party in the case was Indigenous, according to Young, who recently spoke with The Lawyer’s Daily.

“I’ve been trying to think of a way to write [a decision in Mi’Kmaw] for about two years, and I was looking for a case where I could reserve judgment,” said Young, who holds court Wednesdays. “Usually … I have to rule from the bench because there are [many] cases in front of me and I don’t have time. So, it was like, OK, this is a case [where] I have to reserve judgment. And when I did, I thought, I can write this in Mi’Kmaw.”

Young, who was raised speaking the language, also pointed to Nova Scotia’s government recognizing Mi’kmaw as Nova Scotia’s “first language” in July 2022.

Young said writing the decision in Mi’Kmaw was “easy” because it remains his mother tongue.

“I hope I don’t have to wait another [two] years to write another one in Mi’Kmaw,” he said. “But I am also hoping that other judges, that other adjudicators, also step up and get their … decisions translated. I hope to see that. … We have Justice [Michelle] O’Bonsawin at the Supreme Court of Canada, who is Indigenous. Who knows, we may even see a Supreme Court of Canada decision written in an Indigenous language or translated into an Indigenous language.”

Justice O’Bonsawin was appointed to the Supreme Court in September, becoming the first Indigenous person to sit on Canada’s top bench.

The translation of court documents into Indigenous languages has also been explored by Canada’s Federal Court, which in May 2019 issued a decision accompanied by a summary translated into Cree and Dene.

According to information provided by the Federal Court, the translation was part of a pilot project aimed at providing Indigenous-language summaries for certain decisions.

Myrna McCallum, a Vancouver-based Métis-Cree lawyer and host of The Trauma-Informed Lawyer podcast, commented on Young’s move, saying Mi’Kmaq people “will feel a sense of dignity and recognition … upon hearing their own language in the courtroom or seeing it written in a court decision.”

“This is important because as others follow in Tuma’s footsteps, dignity and recognition will replace fear and intimidation for Indigenous court users,” said McCallum. “If judicial councils across Canada wish to meaningful repair their relationship with Indigenous people, then Indigenous languages, laws and cultural practices must hold space in their courts. This is how we increase access to justice for Indigenous people.”

In June 2021, Young became the first Indigenous lawyer to be named president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. Young, a member of the Eskasoni and Malagawatch First Nation, held the position for the 2021-2022 term.

Young is also an assistant professor of Mi’Kmaq Studies at Cape Breton University.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily, please contact Terry Davidson at t.davidson@lexisnexis.ca or 905-415-5899.