The man in charge of the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute says its legal work is largely “invisible,” but with renewed funding, it’s increasing its workload.

“Our role in shaping the law, and improving the law, and improving how the criminal justice system responds to and relates to Black people has already been substantial,” interim acting director Robert Wright said.

“But people will only see that if they are personally involved with the law, or if they’re people who watch and read these things carefully.” 

The institute received $4.8 million in funding from the former Liberal government in July 2021 to help “support African Nova Scotians in contact with the law and help address overrepresentation and anti-Black racism in the justice system.”

In July 2022, Justice Minister Brad Johns reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the institute. Then in December, Premier Tim Houston’s PC government announced it’s spending an additional $4.1 million to extend the institute’s funding from March 2024 to March 2026.

Wright said the institute is still hiring staff but since its launch, it has established and is operating a law firm within the institute that is “actively serving clients” of African descent within the province of Nova Scotia.

“We have limited capacity, so for those individuals who are eligible for legal aid, of course, then we would facilitate them being able to get good legal aid,” Wright said.

Wright said for Black people who can afford lawyers, but whose lawyers may not have expertise in “race litigation,” the institute is able to provide a consulting service to their lawyers in order to help them “increase their capacities to better serve Black people.”

“But then there are Black folk who, for one reason or another, may be better served by a lawyer from the justice institute or whose case is like precedent-setting case, or a test case, or a significant case where the demonstration of how the law either works in our favour or against it. Those are the kinds of cases that I think we would be focusing on at this point.”

“But we are actually up and running and have been working with a number of files.”

Impact of Race and Culture Assessments, street checks

Wright says the work done by the institute predates the official launch of the institute itself.

Wright points specifically to work done by the justice working group under the umbrella of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD), to Impact of Race and Culture Assessments (IRCAs) that were previously performed through the Peoples’ Counselling Clinic, where Wright serves as executive director.

In 2021 in the province’s Court of Appeal, Brandon Rolle successfully argued in favour of a decision that was appealed by the Crown where an IRCA was applied to the sentence of a Black man who was convicted of a gun charge and received a community sentence.

The sentence was unanimously upheld by five appeals court judges who laid out clear instructions making IRCAs the legal standard when sentencing Black citizens in the province.

“It is out of the Peoples’ Counselling Clinic that we were originally running all of the IRCAs, and now IRCAs are being run out of the Justice institute.”

“So, Raytia Turney for example, who’s running the Forensic Assessment Treatment Unit, she’s probably our longest-serving employee because she was actually employed doing that work before the justice institute was fully operational.”

A Black man with glasses and wearing a beige blazer stands at a podium speaking to an audience.
Robert Wright is the acting interim director of African Nova Scotian Justice Institute. Credit: Contributed

Wright also points to “a joint effort between community activists” and members of ANSDPAD around racially disproportionate police street checks as work that also predates the institute.

He said it was their joint efforts that helped convince the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to commission the Wortley Report. Through their continued efforts an independent legal option was then commissioned, and in December 2021, Justice Minister Brad Johns issued a directive replacing “suspicious activity” with “reasonable suspicion” as the new “legal standard to be used by police to detain individuals suspected of unlawful activity.”

“All of the advocacy around that was a joint effort between community activists who were keeping the issue alive in the minds and the imaginations of the population,” Wright said.

“And if those were Black community activists there were also Black policy advocates who were writing to the Human Rights Commission and clarifying a direction and recommending courses of action that resulted in all of that.”

Angela Simmonds

Wright was also asked about the recent resignation of lawyer Angela Simmonds from her positions of Liberal MLA for Preston and deputy Speaker.

“April 1 will certainly not be the last day you hear my voice. I will continue to listen, advocate, and make certain my abilities and experience are used to continue working towards anti-racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Doing this now will look a little different. It won’t be adversarial, it will be how I want to lead and advocate — with empathy, and integrity,” Simmonds wrote in a statement on Jan. 25.

Wright described Simmonds as someone he has “deep, deep affection and appreciation for” and said they worked closely together for a long time in Simmonds’ former role as the equity officer for the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society and in “other work in terms of cultural competence consulting and training.

Wright said he hadn’t spoken to Simmonds since her announcement but can only imagine she has good reasons for her resignation.

“Although I’m disappointed, generally, to see her leave because of how effective she was being as a member of the legislature, I have every confidence in her decisions and in her commitment to service, so I’ll look and wait to see how she will find ways to serve her communities in other capacities.”

The future

Wright said he’ll remain as the interim acting director for the time being. Other staff at the institute include Sarah Upshaw as the operations manager, Brandon Rolle as senior legal counsel, Desiree Jones-Matthias as junior legal counsel, David Curry and Charys Payne as as senior justice strategists, Raytia Turney as the senior clinician in the Forensic Assessment Treatment Unit, and Natalie Hodgson who was hired to direct the National IRCA Training Project in collaboration with the Peoples’ Counselling Clinic.

“We’re going to see IRCAs and IRCA-like issues across the country as this tool is used in other spaces. And the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute is the national expert in adjudicating these things,” Wright said.

A graphic that says Funded by Canada

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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