The UPPER SKEENA COUNSELLING & LEGAL ASSISTANCE SOCIETY (USCLAS) was created in 1977 in response to the over-representation of First Nations people in conflict with the justice system. The Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en people were especially at risk due to their isolation from legal services. People being incarcerated without access to legal advice or legal information. In addition, the continuing effects of colonialism as manifested in the Indian Act meant that many Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en people were being criminalized for participating in their traditional feast system and speaking their language.
First Nations people are still struggling to work within a legal institution that is alien to their traditional justice systems. The disconnect between the Canadian justice system and Aboriginal concepts of justice are a major contributing cause of the continuing over-representation. Poverty, isolation, and the inter-generational effects of residential schools compound the vulnerability of First Nations people to being incarcerated. In 1997, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people constituted only 3 percent of the population of Canada, while amounted to 12 percent of the federal prison population. “Placed in an historical context, the prison has become for many young native people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents”.
USCLAS has evolved over the past three decades to meet the changing legal needs of both the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en people. While, the legal landscape of Canada has changed dramatically in that time, First Nations people are still over-represented in the prison population. Criminal law, therefore, remains one of our primary focuses. However, USCLAS has added additional services over the years, recognizing the increasing community need for family law services as well as poverty law advocacy.
In 2002 USCLAS suffered a severe setback: the Liberal Provincial government cutback the Legal Aid budget by 40%. The Legal Services Society was forced to close down all of the legal aid offices in BC, including USCLAS. With help from our Board Members, sponsorship from the Law Foundation, support from the community, and through taking legal aid contracts, Linda, our managing lawyer, succeeded in keeping this valuable resource in the Gitxsan Territory. Because of the continuing funding cutbacks to legal services in Northern British Columbia, USCLAS has expanded our geographical reach to stretch from Burns Lake to the Queen Charlotte Islands. We have also responded to the increasing legal needs of non-Aboriginal inhabitants of the Northwest.