Indigenous lawyer Don Worme says upbringing led him to life of fighting against injustice

Don Worme has taken on cases for families who have had a loved one shot and killed by police and who have died while incarcerated.

Often, the long-time defence lawyer represents families of those who are at odds with the justice system.

“Early on in my life, it became apparent to me that there is tremendous injustice in this world and that too often Indigenous people are on the receiving end of that,” Worme told Face to Face Host Dennis Ward on the Mar. 31 program. “I’ve seen that from growing up with my grandfather who raised us.

“We know that the policies of Indian Affairs and the oppression of the Indian Act had caused him to not only lose his children to the resident school system, which wounded him gravely but he lost his farm and all of his effort of his life’s work because he was unable to sell his produce, the Indian Agent simply took it.”

Worme said we need people to stand up and speak out against that injustice and that is something that his grandfather instilled in him.

That has been his inspiration to get involved in some of the cases he has over the years, some that have led to positive results for the families and recommendations that have led to institutional changes.

Worme’s life would forever be changed when he witnessed his mother and sister murdered when he was four years old.

“The fact of the matter is that my mother was murdered along with three of my sisters, all died at the hands of violent men,” said Worme. “My brothers and I were cast into the child welfare system and we spent too long a time there away from our homes and our own communities. I was rescued by my grandfather. I like to say that we were captured by aliens and he saved us. I mean, it’s not really funny but it’s a way to try to find some humour in a very dark situation.

“We always thank the creator that we had our grandfather in our lives and instill the kinds of values in us to make us men and to make us believe in what’s right.”

The murders of Worme’s mother and three sisters are not stories he tells often.

What Worme has managed to overcome is an inspiration.

He is a founding member of the Indigenous Bar Association and has watched as the number of Indigenous lawyers in Canada has soared.

“There has been leaps and bounds forward in the legal profession for Indigenous people,” said Worme.

According to Worme, the number of Indigenous lawyers has grown from less than 200 in 1985 to close to 2,000 today.

On the flip side, the most disturbing trend Worme has seen in his work as a criminal lawyer during the past 33 years, is the increasing number of Indigenous people being incarcerated.

“I’m now working for the grand children of some of my clients back in the day on very serious charges and it’s heartbreaking,” said Worme.

Worme has long pushed for Indigenous laws and tradition to be incorporated in the legal system.

Early on in his career, Worme was involved in instilling healing circles in the legal system.

“There were strides made. The unfortunate part about it is when there are strides, it seems to me and in bringing Indigenous laws and Indigenous traditions into the court system, the courts get very jealous and they want to take over the system.

“And very soon those healing circles became sentencing circle,” said Worme.

The Cree lawyer from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan first rose to prominence when he acted as legal counsel for the family of Neil Stonechild in the judicial inquiry into the Saskatoon Police Service’s involvement after the teen was found frozen to death in November 1990.

It has been nearly 20 years since the death of Stonechild and 15 years since the report was released, but it sure doesn’t feel like it’s been that long to Worme.

Most of the roughly 100 recommendations in the Inquiry report were implemented and led to a change in relationship between the Saskatoon Police Service and Indigenous people.

“What I can tell you is that in most recent years, we’ve begun to have a slip back on that,” said Worme. “There have been new policies that have been implemented and I think we’re again seeing where Indigenous people in this city are being profile.”

That is not a Saskatoon police phenomenon said Worme.

“The issue between law enforcement and Indigenous people is one that has been prevalent since the government brought in the North West Mounted Police in order to enforce what were really unjust laws at the time. Including for example, the pass system which has no basis in law, but it was simply a policy that someone had dreamed up in order to repress Indigenous people, in particular Indians in this country,” said Worme.

Worme said he often thinks about retiring and he easily could have stepped away from the profession in 2013.

In October of that year, Worme won nearly $14.8-million dollars on Lotto 649.

When Worme discovered he had the winning ticket, he thought “this is Freedom 55.”

“It also occurred to me that this is an extreme privilege that has been visited upon not just me, but of course my family. And with that privilege comes a responsibility and a responsibility to do something meaningful in keeping with the values that I was raised with,” said Worme.

After a lot of discussion and contemplation with family and friends, Worme decided to set up a foundation with the winnings and then the foundation would then use that to do the work “that the creator wants done.”

Much of the work of the Foundation focuses on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and education.

 

Host/Producer - Winnipeg

Dennis is Metis from southern Manitoba. After spending a decade working in TV in Alberta and Ontario, Dennis returned to Manitoba to join APTN’s Winnipeg bureau as reporter/correspondent in September 2014. In 2016, he won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for his story A Soldier Scorned for APTN Investigates. In 2017, he became a host/producer for APTN National News and Face to Face. In 2020, Dennis and co host Melissa Ridgen were nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best News Anchor, National.