An Interview with Judge Steven Point

Reprinted With Permission From Talking Circle

Judge Steven Point of Skowkale First Nation is one of a handful of First Nations people appointed a judge of the Provincial Court of British Columbia. He assumed his judgeship in February, 1999.

Steven, 47, and his wife, Gwen, have been married for 27 years, and have four children and nine grandchildren.

Steven had a long history of working for Stolo people and communities. He encouraged the revival of traditional singing and dancing by his involvement in Stolo longhouses and by serving as a committee member for the Chilliwack PowWow.

Steven’s other achievements include:

  • Director of the Native Law Program in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia;

  • Instructor of Native Law at the University of Saskatchewan
    Adjudicator and Administrative Tribunal at the Federal Department of Immigration and Employment; and

  • Practitioner of Criminal Law and Native Law as a partner in the firm Point and Shirley.

In addition, Steven served as Chief of his community for 15 years and was Chiefs’ Representative for the Stolo Nation Government House from 1994 to 1998.

First Nations Drum: Please explain your role as a Provincial Court Judge. Where does that position fit within the legal system?

Steven Point: There are three levels of court in B.C. and the Provincial Court is at the base of the legal system. Directly above this is the Supreme Court of British Columbia and then the Court of Appeal for British Columbia.

The Provincial Court is where a lot of the work happens. It handles in excess of 90 per cent of the adult criminal matters that come to court. Fewer than 10 per cent of the cases go on the Supreme Court. So Provincial Court judges are extremely busy.

We also have the federal court system, in Canada, which has a trial section and an appeal section.

Although one day I hope to move up to the Supreme Court of B.C. and jury trials, I am very happy with the job I have now.

FN: What are you currently doing in the system ?

Steven: At the time I was appointed, the criminal justice system had been severely backlogged. Some court cases were being scheduled up to eighteen months down the road.

The Canadian Constitution says that somebody facing criminal matter has a constitutional right to have his or her case heard within a reasonable time. The provincial government was faced with a situation where they would have to prosecute fewer cases or else hire more judges. They decided to do the latter.

One of the things I have been doing is traveling around the province to hear cases in places where the backlog is particularly severe. I’ve been to Prince George, Penticton, Kelowna, Burnaby, Maple Ridge, Vancouver and Chilliwack.

I’ve enjoyed the travel and the experience because I get to work with other judges. In July, I will be permanently posted in Prince Rupert.

FN: How many Aboriginal people currently sit as judges the BC court system?

Steven: Marion Buller-Bennett and David Joe currently sit on BC Provincial Court benches. Across Canada, we have 16 Aboriginal judges in the court system. In British Columbia, Aboriginal judges make up less than two or three per cent of the total 145 judges.

We are under-represented on the bench, but neither do we have many lawyers in the system. There are a lot of Aboriginal people in law school, but not many native people are actually practicing law.

FN: What impact do you hope to have on the legal systems as an Aboriginal person and as a community leader and former chief of Skowkale?

Steven: I’ve been kicking around this issue for some time, not just in the legal system but also in education and in the immigration system, where I worked previously.

In every community, there is a small group of influential people who are very, very prejudiced – on both sides of Aboriginal issues. There is a group of people in both groups that are trying to fight that racism. And there is a huge lump of people in the middle who simply don’t care about Aboriginal issues.

What I find is that the same situation exists in the justice system, in education, in any institution. The question is, “Do we take a big stick and force these people to get along? Or do we guide them along and show them a different way?”
I’ve learned that I am the only person who controls my emotions. I can’t control other people, I can’t control the weather, I can only control my behaviour. At the end of the day, unless people want to change, they won’t change their minds.

FN: How do you effect change?

Steven: What I found out from talking to people such as Aboriginal constables in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is that change occurred not because they pointed out problems in the system and complained, but simply because they were there….

If a native person got arrested when the Aboriginal constable was present, the other non-native officer would treat the person differently just because the Aboriginal constable was there. The non-native officer was embarrassed and wouldn’t step over the line of authority because of the presence of the Aboriginal constable.

In just the same way, my becoming a judge – just being there – and my background as being chief of my community and speaking on behalf of my community will make a difference.