Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Considering Aboriginal Heritage in the Sentencing of Barbara Holmes

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

This past week saw the release of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench’s judgment in the case of R v Holmes[1]. Holmes is an aboriginal woman who murdered her allegedly abusive husband[2]. Holmes was charged with manslaughter and saw trial in June of this year. The judgment, written by Justice Langston, convicted Ms. Holmes to five years in prison.

Within the judgment Justice Langston expresses serious concerns about the way indigenous people are treated in Alberta’s court system. Justice Langston sees our historical interactions with our native peoples as being “one of deliberate destruction”[3] and laments the cruel system imposed upon them. In continuing with the judgment Justice Langston also acquired the assistance of an aboriginal elder, one Blue Thunderbird Man, in order to ensure that the accuseds heritage and culture were properly considered. Although it is not feasible for the accused to be tried in a forum more conducive to her heritage, it does not mean that her heritage cannot be respected in the courtroom.

Justice Langston was bound by the goal posts set by statute and by the opposing counsels to pick a sentence between five and ten years. In choosing the lesser of these sentences Justice Langston considered the institutional disadvantages incumbent on Ms. Holmes; from her mother’s experience in a residential school to Holmes’ experiences growing up in the reserve system. The Justice also considered Ms. Holmes lack of priors and her peaceful industrious demeanor. In his final words to Ms. Holmes Justice Langston advised her to take advantage of counselling and other services in prison in order to heal and return to society.

The impassioned plea by Justice Langston in this case demonstrates the ways in which judges in Alberta are working to repair the relationship between our justice system and our native peoples. Although judges are bound by the rules of our justice system to treat all accused persons fairly, they can still consider the culture and history of indigenous people to work with them and allow for spiritual and psychological healing for those individuals and the communities to which they belong. Hopefully efforts like the one seen in this case will help to heal the fractured relationship between our justice system and our indigenous peoples and reduce the extent to which indigenous peoples are over-represented in our criminal justice system.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC. 

[1] R v Holmes, 2018 ABQB 916

[2] The Canadian Press, “’Deliberate Destruction:’ Alberta Judge Concerned About Indigenous Justice” (9 November 2018), online: Red Deer Advocate <https://www.reddeeradvocate.com/news/deliberate-destruction-alberta-judge-concerned-about-indigenous-justice/>

[3] Supra note 1 at para 2