This series of commissioned articles commemorates the life, career, and work of Dr. Carol LaPrairie, one of Canada's best-known and best-loved Aboriginal justice scholars, who died in December 2010. The articles are authored by colleagues who knew and worked with Carol and draw attention to the significance and influence of a lifetime's commitment to academic and policy-relevant Aboriginal justice research.
Growing up in a mining community in the Yukon Territory, in northwestern Canada, Carol had early contact with Aboriginal people that inspired her lifelong commitment to critically examine and challenge the inequality, social disadvantage, and injustice that Aboriginal people face, not only in Canada, but also in Australia and New Zealand. Over the course of a long and productive career, Carol produced an impressive and diverse body of academic and policy work. She initiated and managed a number of ground-breaking Aboriginal justice research projects, produced 15 important government policy papers and research reports, published over 50 academic journal articles and book chapters, co-authored a landmark book on alternative Aboriginal justice practices, and gave countless public talks and conference papers. This body of work is even more impressive when one considers that it was accomplished while she was raising four successful children as a single mother and working, not as an academic, but as a government policy researcher, at various times, in federal government departments (Solicitor General, Justice and Indian and Northern Affairs) and in governments in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon Territory. She was also an active member of the International Commission on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism.
Doing critical policy research in government is always challenging, especially in a highly contested policy arena, characterized by fractious political debate and complex cultural politics. That Carol was able to sustain such a long and successful career doing important and often policy-challenging research is testimony not only to her personal integrity but also to the quality and utility of her work. Her insistence that Aboriginal justice policy should be grounded in solid empirical research led her to directly engage her subjects through time-consuming and often arduous field-based research, in both remote and urban Aboriginal communities. This provided a sound and unusually authoritative empirical foundation for her insightful analysis of the complex problems and justice issues confronting Aboriginal peoples. Her research provided a reliable basis for both critique of and reform to existing conventional and also new, "alternative" justice models and practices.
As a non-native in a contested policy world, she knew that it was vital that her research be seen to be both independent and accurate, and it was these qualities that allowed her work to speak inconvenient truths to power and often challenge official Aboriginal justice policy assumptions and practices. While her work was not always welcomed by activists, its salience for Aboriginal communities is perhaps no more clearly acknowledged than by the tribute that was paid to her after her death by Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the James Bay Cree in Northern Quebec, where, with Jean-Paul Brodeur and Roger MacDonnell, she had undertaken ground-breaking research. He wrote, "Carol travelled throughout James Bay to meet with our people on issues of justice, policing and customary law. In 1991 she concluded a multi-volume report on her findings, which we consider a living document to this day." (1)
Carol's policy and evaluation research was particularly influential, not only in critiquing conventional criminal justice treatment of Aboriginal people, but in examining the development of new Aboriginal justice practices and programs such as sentencing circles, restorative justice, and urban drug courts. Her academically oriented published work explored many of the same issues, but from more explicit sociological and criminological perspectives. She published numerous academic articles, in a wide range of Canadian and international journals. Her articles addressed a range of important and often emerging Aboriginal justice issues and problems, such as overlooked urban Aboriginal crime and justice issues; the links between Aboriginal community structure and crime and justice consequences; the challenges of introducing alternative Aboriginal justice practices, such as sentencing circles and restorative justice; a variety of Aboriginal women's issues regarding children and domestic violence; the need to unravel the statistics to explore the causes of Aboriginal over-representation in the criminal justice system; the sentencing and incarceration of Aboriginal offenders; and the efficacy of special urban drug courts. Her articles often generated important academie and policy debates and frequent citations by academie colleagues, thus playing an important role in the development of modern Aboriginal justice scholarship.
While Carol's research and published work was rooted in Canada, she recognized, early on, the potential relevance of the development of Aboriginal restorative justice practices in Australia and New Zealand. In the 1990s, she spent time as a visiting scholar at the Research School for the Social Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra, and her collaborative work with John Braithwaite--a contributor to this issue--and others ensured a cross-fertilization of ideas, practices, and knowledge that helped inform Aboriginal justice policy and practice in both countries.
A committed advocate for progressive justice reform, Carol's first-hand knowledge of the theory, practice, and outcomes of promising, but often poorly conceived and implemented, "alternative" Aboriginal justice initiatives gave her work an important and rare critical perspective on their development. This constructive contribution to the development of Aboriginal justice is, perhaps, best exemplified in her ground-breaking book, co-authored with Jane Dickson-Gilmore, Will the Circle be Unbroken? Aboriginal Communities, Restorative Justice, and the Challenges of Conflict and Change (University of Toronto Press, 2005). The authors rely on their extensive, combined academic and research backgrounds to subject Aboriginal justice practices and policy to theoretical and empirical scrutiny, while also considering Canadian developments in the context of similar reforms in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. The book offers a rare empirically-based critical overview of contemporary Aboriginal initiatives such as restorative justice, sentencing circles, and healing lodges. While critical of some of the often unexamined assumptions, practices, and outcomes of alternative justice programs, the authors also provide a constructive community-based vision for reform and future development.
In summary, Carol LaPrairie's work was characterized by an unwavering personal commitment to promoting progressive justice for Aboriginal peoples through the application...