Veteran court liaison Barry Bernard ‘fights every day’ for Indigenous communities in Cape Breton

Aboriginal court liaison Barry Paul Bernard.
Aboriginal court liaison Barry Paul Bernard (Contributed).

Barry Paul Bernard did not seek out his current position as Aboriginal court liaison for the Nova Scotia Court System and Mi'kmaw Legal Support Network. 

He actually started out as a communications officer with the court system, but when his colleague passed away, Bernard was tapped to temporarily fill in. Ten years later, he’s a veteran court liaison, primarily working at the Wagmatcook First Nation Wellness Court, but also at the courts in Sydney and Port Hawkesbury.

Bernard works with more than 400 clients every year who go through court-mandated wellness programs that aim to reduce harms from drug use and the punitive aspects of the criminal justice system.

The wellness court model is such that clients who have had a history of criminal problems, and are found to be living with addiction, get reviewed by a multidisciplinary team of legal, medical and Indigenous restorative justice experts that devise a specialized plan for the client to complete. These plans typically require 12 to 24 months of intensive wellness therapy that is consistent with the traditions of Indigenous healing. These pro-active harm reduction tactics also align with Nova Scotia Health Authority's mental health and addictions work.
Across Canada, Indigenous people are overrepresented in the prison population.

“A lot of what I have to deal with on an everyday basis is racism because Aboriginal people are treated totally different than white people in the justice system,” Bernard said. “I fight every day.”

Bernard advocates for the wellness court model because it helps get people who usually need mental health and addiction services to the right place rather than behind prison bars.

Even being able to use the language of the communities he serves is so critical in any wellness plan, he explained.

“English is a hard language,” Bernard said. “It’s easier to communicate in our own language and to use language as a tool.”

Using traditional techniques to healing leads to better outcomes for people living in First Nation communities, he added.

Bernard sees a range of issues in the communities he serves. Much of these issues are related to mental health and addictions, but they also reflect the upstream social determinants of health that many Nova Scotians are all too familiar with. 

“You don’t just see alcohol use, but all types of drugs, prescription drugs,” he said. “You hear stories about sex abuse, assault, theft, suicide and real horror stories. How do you deal with a lack of jobs and teenage pregnancy and people dropping out of school? How do you deal with residential school syndrome? It’s tough.”
Bernard even has personal experience with these horror stories, having suffered the loss of a brother to an opioid overdose.

“Drug use is a normal problem everywhere, but a harder problem in aboriginal communities,” he said. “We have 90 per cent of people living on welfare and there are no other means for help other than what is available in their community. How do you support people and clean up your community at the same time? This is a conflict.”

To manage the burnout he risks from dealing with heart-wrenching stories from the community, Bernard coaches at the Eskasoni Red Tribe Boxing Club to help youth interested in the sport.

“At four o’clock, I have to take off my hat and do something other than work,” he said. “That is my passion. Boxing. I’m also an avid fisherman and photographer.”

Although he is hopeful about the future of wellness courts and is heartened to hear about the expansion of these courts to other areas of Nova Scotia, he is also quick to point out lingering problems with the status quo.

Bernard cites that current laws punish people more than support them.

“If people are caught possessing or trafficking drugs in Indigenous communities, they are at risk of losing their homes and sometimes their families by Chief and Council,” he said.

He believes that not only do people face institutionalized stigma, but they become worse off under the current system. That is why Bernard is such an advocate for wellness courts, because they approach drug use and other problems as something that can be managed and healed.
“Nova Scotia should see Cape Breton as a role model,” he said. “Cape Breton is … more open and willing to adapt. The rest of Nova Scotia can learn from that.”