Elder Gilbert Smith, 73, of Naicatchewenin First Nation, is one of the recipients of the Guthrie Award presented by the Law Foundation of Ontario in recognition of the work done at the Elders’ Council.
The Guthrie Award is the Foundation’s signature award to recognize exceptional access to justice champions. The Elders’ Council which consists of 13 elders won the award for 2020.
The Elders’ Council was established to support the work of the Indigenous Justice Division. All the Elders were chosen because they are knowledge keepers from across Ontario. The Elders were approached to participate based on their personal leadership strengths and specialized knowledge, according to the Law Foundation of Ontario. The Council is gender-balanced and reflective of the diverse Indigenous Nations and regions of the province.
Smith said a lot of group work is involved in the Elders’ Council.
“I’m also a presenter,” Smith said. “I do speaking from the justice point. I’m a public speaker. I also had many meetings with the Ministry people at the higher level with regards to justice.”
Smith said he joined in 2016 when the former Grand Chief Warren White introduced him to the Elders’ Council and the work they do.
“It all started from way back when I was working with the Grand Chief of our Treaty #3 territory,” Smith said. “When he shared that with me, I got very interested in it when he started talking about the work they do.”
Smith said despite his limited schooling, he has a lot of experience working in the justice field. His fluency in both Anishinaabe and English also helped him expand his horizons.
“I worked with the United Native Friendship Centre, and then I was a court worker,” Smith said. “So I spent a lot of time in court here in Fort Frances. I also took training to learn more about what the system is all about back in those days.”
Smith said being part of the Elders’ Council gave him the chance to work with different nationalities such as Anishinaabe, which is from Grand Council Treaty #3. He also worked with Mohawk people, Mohawk tribes, Cree, Inuit and Metis people.
“There’s quite a number of tribes in there at that table, but we all got along,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m happy about. We all got along together in working with the government.”
During the work at the Elders’ Council, Smith said, they do not only talk about incarceration, but also dive deep into crimes, why they are committed and how they could help others deal with them.
As part of the Elders’ Council, Smith had the opportunity to travel to southern Ontario, Ottawa, Montreal and to other communities in Thunder Bay, Kenora and Dryden.
Smith said he felt proud and honoured to be among the recipients of the Guthrie Award. However, he said work has to be continued to meet the needs of the people that are struggling in the area of justice.
“There’s still a lot of unfinished business,” Smith said. “There’s still a lot of people that are unhappy about the system, how it’s set. We need to do more work with the government, and also our leadership. We need to work together to make things better, not only for the Anishinaabe, but also non-native people. We have to come together to make things a bit better of the system that we have now.”
Smith said coming across obstacles are inevitable, but working together is key to make sure issues around justice and incarceration are addressed and learned from.
They have to help people that are in need of help, Smith said. He added that even though they committed crimes, they need to be helped in order to have a better future outside of jail.
“Because for me as a person, everything that happened in my life happened for a reason. I got caught up in that system 50 years ago,” Smith said. “I’m not afraid to say that, but I had to make some changes. That is what I use in working with people in helping them to get out of the that kind of mess.”
The population in Naicatchewenin First Nation is a little over 400 with many residents living off the reserve in Thunder Bay, the United States and Winnipeg.