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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 04 | Feb. 22, 2001

Righter of human wrongs

Law Prof. Michael Jackson has made the case for human rights in Canada

by Daria Wojnarski staff writer

Law Prof. Michael Jackson's consuming interest in civil rights took root in the United States during the unsettling and tumultuous '60s.

"Seeing the fragile state of human rights in the leading democratic country in the world left an indelible impression on me about the fragility of human rights and the need for lawyers to stand up for its vindication," says Jackson, who now teaches First Nations law and prison law.

The British-born Jackson attended Yale University on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1966, right in the middle of the American civil rights movement. He calls it "a fairly radicalizing experience."

"It was the first time I became aware of the larger obligations of lawyers in trying to achieve a just society," recalls Jackson.

To look at Jackson, you would never suspect the heart of a lawyer beats under his casual attire.

The 57-year-old father of two has shoulder-length hair and sports a turquoise silver ring on his right hand. The look is slightly radical.

But a lawyer he is, and one whose career has been marked by major milestones in Canadian legal history.

"I have the luxury of taking cases I believe in, such as representing those who've been wrongly convicted," he says.

Jackson first became involved in aboriginal rights when a group of his students ran into problems while researching the legal needs of native people in Alert Bay.

"I spent some time meeting the chief and band council and learning for the first time about the lives of aboriginal people. I learned about the oppression of Indian people under the Indian Act and the history of Indian land claims in B.C. and how the government had refused to negotiate with them."

When Jackson returned to UBC, he suggested aboriginal rights be added to the Faculty of Law's curriculum. In 1973, the Faculty became the first law school in Canada to offer a course on aboriginal rights.

Jackson was part of the legal team which represented the Gitksan Wetsuwet'en in northwest B.C. in an aboriginal rights case 13 years ago.

The case eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada and resulted in the landmark decision that aboriginal title was a legal interest in land and that that right had never been extinguished in B.C., now known as the Delgamuukw decision.

Jackson also helped the Nimpkish band in Alert Bay change their health-care system.

When a child died, the band claimed health care for native people was inferior and the child's death was the result of medical malpractice.

At an inquiry, Jackson, acting as the band's lawyer, argued that native people were being treated as second-class citizens and should be allowed to manage their own health care.

The inquiry led to major changes in native health-care, including the establishment of the first native-run health centre.

Then there's the work he does in the area of prisoner's rights.

"If he wasn't in my life I'd be completely buried in an abyss of human suffering," says Gary Weaver. The 32-year-old man is serving a life sentence at William Head Prison on Vancouver Island for second-degree murder.

What Jackson managed to do was get Weaver released from solitary confinement. Two years ago, Weaver was segregated from other prisoners for 80 days on the allegation of attempted murder, even though the RCMP had exonerated him of the charge.

"Michael fought and fought for me and even had my case brought up in the House of Commons," says Weaver.

Just days before his case was to be heard in the B.C. Supreme Court, Weaver was released into the general prisoner population. However, Jackson pressed ahead with the case and Weaver was eventually awarded legal costs.

Jackson's interest in prisoners' rights had begun more than 25 years earlier after reviewing a letter from a prisoner who wanted to file a legal writ challenging the conditions of solitary confinement.

"I interviewed him and some of the others in solitary confinement," Jackson says. "I then helped initiate a lawsuit that led to a landmark declaration in the federal court in 1975."

The court declared that conditions in solidarity confinement in the B.C. Penitentiary constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

"Many people think that decision was a contributing factor to the closure of the B.C. Penitentiary," says Jackson.

Jackson's book Prisoners of Isolation, describes the history of solitary confinement in North America and Europe.

Although proud of his achievements, Jackson takes special pride in his students.

"I encourage my students to get involved in these issues because they're current ones, not just academic ones. They can contribute to their education and make a difference in someone's life."

In 1980 a class assignment helped lead to a federal government review of 90 cases of men who were serving indefinite sentences as habitual criminals.

After interviewing 18 inmates, many of whom had been prison for almost 20 years, Jackson's students filed reports on whether the men met the criteria of dangerous offender.

When Jackson reviewed the reports he concluded only one of the men had a sufficiently violent record to be in that category. He also concluded there should be a judicial review.

Of the 90 cases eventually reviewed by the federal government, 83 were pardoned.

Jackson's book on what's changed in the Canadian prison system in the past 25 years, Justice Behind The Walls, will be published early next year.

Written with the assistance of the Bora Laskin Fellowship in Human Rights, the book features the results of interviews with prisoners, correctional officials and wardens.

In 1999, Jackson was appointed Queen's Counsel in recognition of the work he's done with aboriginal and prisoners' rights.

Jackson has accomplished a great deal, especially for someone who came to UBC for what he thought would be a brief stay.

"I took it thinking it would be a one-year appointment and then I would go back to Britain," he says of his acceptance of a position at UBC 31 years ago.

"My life is here in Vancouver. Picking up and going somewhere else -- I have no desire to do that," he says.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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