Thompson Rivers University

Indigenizing the justice system

September 29, 2022

TRU Law alum Darnel Tailfeathers (centre) with family members at convocation in June 2022.

Walking across the stage at convocation is always special, but for TRU Law grad Darnel Tailfeathers, a Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) member, the experience was unforgettable.

Led by his grandfather Roger Hunt Sr., family members stepped up to perform an Indigenous honour song as Tailfeathers accepted his degree. Hunt called out Tailfeathers’ traditional name as their voices filled the room.

“There were some tears rolling down my face — it was so powerful,” says Tailfeathers. “As he was calling my name I could feel my ancestors were there with me.”

It was a compelling finale to a challenging, yet rewarding, period in the life of Tailfeathers, his partner Brittany Thomas, also a TRU student, and their two young children. The family moved to Kamloops from Alberta in 2019 to attend TRU, moved back when the pandemic forced the closure of campus and then returned as in-person learning resumed. All that moving took a toll on the family finances, so when Tailfeathers received the Acumen Law Award and a Keith and Robbin Bracken Law Emergency Award, he was incredibly appreciative.

“The extra support was a huge assistance to my family in helping us move back to Kamloops,” Tailfeathers says.

Alum committed to giving back

Tailfeathers plans to put all the support he has received to good use. From his first days as a university student taking an Indigenous studies class to opening his acceptance letter to law school at TRU and receiving the awards that would help propel him to the finish line, he has always been committed to giving back.

“The Tailfeathers are very educated people, but there has never been a lawyer in the family — no one has been down this road before,” he says. “I want to be able to open doors, not only in my family but for other Indigenous youth. I want to let them know that anything is possible.”

As part of his commitment to opening doors, Tailfeathers has a vision to help reduce the disproportionately high levels of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian justice system. The idea took on a whole new life when Tailfeathers and classmate Nicholas Todd began discussing projects for a course. They talked about creating an app that would address the need for an expedited resource for criminal defense lawyers representing Indigenous clients to use in sentencing hearings. Soon, the Gladue Submissions Assistant, now named Four Justice Services app, was born.

The Gladue report came to being in 1999 following the case of R v Gladue when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that systemic and background circumstances unique to Indigenous clients must be considered during sentencing in a criminal trial. Since the decision, judges have directed that in order to assist in the sentencing of Indigenous offenders, pre-sentencing reports must be prepared to assess the offender’s circumstances, also known as Gladue factors.

Tailfeathers, Todd and fellow students Zachary Halper, Hasleen Sanghera and Sean Macdonald developed their app for lawyers to use in sentencing and bail submissions in cases when it isn’t feasible to wait for a Gladue report to be drafted. It produces a draft sentencing submission tailored to the client’s Gladue factors. The group is still taking steps to bring the app to life.

The app went on to win two awards, one local and one international. In April 2022, six teams competed in the final round of the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, an international competition for student-made tech solutions that bridge the justice gap, hosted by Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Presenting their idea by Zoom, the group of TRU Faculty of Law students took first place.

Tailfeathers is currently articling at an Indigenous law firm in Calgary and says he is confident he is on the right path.

“I’m here to provide the best service I can, and I really am confident in what I am going to do,” he says. “It is my goal to help Indigenous people.”

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