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Judge John Reilly's quest for Aboriginal fairness in Canada

The longest serving provincial court judge in the province whose first bestselling book sparked both controversy and praise across the country, is about to launch his second offering in a trilogy detailing his battle with the justice system and his quest for Aboriginal fairness in Canada.
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The longest serving provincial court judge in the province whose first bestselling book sparked both controversy and praise across the country, is about to launch his second offering in a trilogy detailing his battle with the justice system and his quest for Aboriginal fairness in Canada.

Honourable Justice John Reilly, 68, was a circuit court judge presiding over Banff, Cochrane and Canmore courtrooms for more than 30 years, and though at times tumultuous, his tenure brought about many changes across the country and in particular on the Stoney-Nakoda reserve west of Calgary.

The Stoney reserve comprises three distinct bands: Bearspaw, Wesley and Chinook.

Reilly's first book, Bad Medicine: A Judge's Struggle for Justice in a First Nations Community painted a jarring portrayal of First Nations tribal corruption. It was an instant bestseller and Reilly donated all of the profits to Stoney literacy programs.

His second book, Bad Judgement: The Myths of First Nations Inequality and Judicial Independence in Canada wasn't particularly easy to write, the judge explained.

"It was more difficult because it had me reliving years of conflict and frustration with court administration," he said from his hometown of Canmore. "I know during my time I accomplished something significant, and I increased a lot of awareness of the plight (of native communities), but I could have done a lot more with the support of court administration. In fact, I mostly had outright opposition."

The book has taken three years to write due in part to the vast amount of material Reilly had to sift through.

"I had five or six file boxes of court materials including court proceedings which were all catalogued and sorted - thousands of pages of pleadings and legal authorities, transcribed correspondence verbatim," he said.

During his time as a provincial court judge, Reilly became concerned about the fact that many of the Aboriginal defendants that appeared before him were usually repeat offenders, and he said he realized serving time in prison simply wasn't working.

"Prison, in many cases, does more harm than good," he said.

Claiming he couldn't properly sentence offenders until an inquiry into social conditions on the reserve was carried out, Reilly delayed sentencing in a domestic assault trial.

He claimed that victims of domestic violence were generally afraid to speak out and that the Stoney-Nakoda reserve with annual revenues of approximately $9 million, had an unemployment rate of 90 per cent.

Reilly was also particularly critical of the late Wesley band chief John Snow whom he claimed used receipts from a band-owned facility as personal income, profited from logging, and personally used public funds.

Snow who vigorously denied these claims, served as Chief of the Wesley band from 1969-92 and again from 1996 until his retirement in 2000. He died in 2006.

In the storm that followed Reilly's accusations, then Justice Minister Jon Havelock appealed the demand for a probe and ordered that Reilly be relocated to Calgary.

But Reilly fought to remain where he was and in the end a judge ruled that though he did have the right to ask certain questions pertaining to social conditions on the reserve, he'd gone too far by insisting on a probe into the financial mismanagement of the tribal council. He eventually won the right to remain in his original job.

Reilly said he expects the reaction to this book to be similar to the last one.

"Most of the feedback I got back then was positive," he said. "Stoneys came to book signings and brought me gifts. But I know there were some who didn't like it. Some people in Morley want me to shut up."

But Reilly is adamant that 'shutting up' is not the answer in Canada's Aboriginal communities.

"The purpose of my book is to show that problems will remain unresolved if not talked about," he said, referring specifically to the high number of suicides on the Stoney reserve. Reilly feels particularly incensed by this issue after losing a close friend to suicide years ago.

He resigned from the bench before an unsuccessful attempt to win a federal Liberal seat in the Wild Rose riding in 2011, and these days enjoys writing his books, speaking at various events and spending time with children and grandchildren.

"I grew to dislike the system," he said. "I always felt like I was swimming against the tide and I became tired of it. I'll never go back to a courtroom again unless I'm taken there in handcuffs."

Wesley band member and oft community spokesperson Greg Twoyoungmen said though the first book was controversial, in all it was good for his people.

"Usually the reason our people are incarcerated is because they have no idea about the law," he said. "Judge Reilly was a godsend to us. Anybody can be a judge, but not anybody can make a difference like he did. He exposed wrongdoing. We needed him."

The final book in the trilogy will be entitled Bad Law, Reilly said.

Bad Judgement will be launched officially Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Georgetown Inn in Canmore, with another presentation to take place at the Canmore Public Library on Dec. 15.

For more information about further book signing events, visit www.johnreilly.ca.