When Sheila Greckol was growing up in the small town of Vilna, Alta., she saw young people trapped by circumstance. Greckol’s mother, Lura, was a Grade 1 teacher who would sometimes bring home students who lacked warm winter clothing or food. As a result, Greckol became aware that some of her classmates had no freedom of choice when it came to what they ate, where they lived and how they lived. Many of these children were from First Nations, including nearby Saddle Lake Cree Nation and Good Fish Lake First Nation.
Greckol carries these early childhood memories with her today in her work in the justice system.
“Some of the things I witnessed, including violent incidents involving local police and Indigenous people, as well as poverty, racism and the accompanying social problems, are still with me, even though it’s been 50 years since I left home to go to university,” says Greckol.
She spent 25 years as a lawyer working on cases involving abortion and freedom of choice, the rights of members of the LGBTQ community, paid maternity leave and more. In her current role, as a justice of the Court of Appeal of Alberta, Greckol is still witness to the disadvantage in the lives of Indigenous people.
“We see the consequences of colonialism — aptly called cultural genocide — every day in the courts. The tragic narratives, the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in the criminal justice system,” says Greckol.
One of the many issues Greckol feels must be advocated for is Indigenizing the courts. This means locating the courts within or near First Nations communities, having community members working there, using traditional cultural approaches to guide people toward a healing path, and fashioning creative, rehabilitative sentences where possible.
Greckol believes non-Indigenous people in Canadian society have a responsibility to do what they can to work toward reconciliation with First Nations peoples.
“I believe it rises to the level of a moral imperative,” she says.