Could Indigenous court be an alternative to the provincial judicial system’s sentencing?
Port Hardy RCMP Cpl. Chris Voller seems to think so.
Indigenous courts are different to provincial courts because they focus on First Nations’ communities through healing, but it is still a sentencing court.
The court may come to the North Island as soon as next year.
Chief Justice Thomas Crabtree and the local presiding Judge Barbara Flewelling recently held a session to discuss the merits of Indigenous court, and found it to be a worthwhile idea for the North Island.
Port Hardy RCMP Staff Sgt. Wes Olsen also signed a letter of support to have one running here on the North Island, which Port Hardy council agreed to back at their last meeting.
Voller, the Indigenous Policing Services Unit Supervisor, oversees First Nations relationships that are built by Cst. Paul Starr and Cst. Stacy Macdonald.
“The scope is this,” Voller explained, “with Indigenous Policing Services, there are five or six (in total) that exist, there’s one in Duncan, one in New Westminster, and one in Prince George. It’s still a criminal offence, so it falls under the criminal code. Someone would need to plead guilty, but it’s going to be dealt with in such a fashion that it’s culturally relevant.”
Voller noted that in the court, community elders are heavily involved in the process. According to a report from Crabtree, local Indigenous elders will have to complete a program or orientation to give advice on a healing plan for the offender.
Voller also emphasized that the key aspect of the Indigenous court is a guilty plea. A guilty plea, he noted, would still result in a criminal record, but if the individual chooses not to go through Indigenous court, they can still go through the provincial courts.
Indigenous courts are put in place to reduce recurring offences amongst repeat offenders, “as opposed to it being a punishment or seeing recidivism (repeating offences),” said Voller. “If we’re not changing the behavior of individuals, we can’t continue to do the same thing. We need to do something to re-engage these individuals in more meaningful ways.”
Voller added the RCMP’s hope is that by utilizing Indigenous Policing Services, “we will have all our stakeholders involved – Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw, Quatsino, and Kwakiutl.”
He also noted other local First Nations will be involved in the process as well.
The Indigenous court is separate but similar to restorative justice, which is another sentencing process that may use a Gladue report (which is a type of pre-sentencing and bail hearing report that a Canadian court can request when considering sentencing an offender of Aboriginal background).
Voller noted it may go further than restorative justice in that it would be more culturally relevant.
Voller said an example of restorative justice is when First Nations individuals are taken to Deserter’s Island to do their sentencing. “Instead of going to jail for, say, seven days, why not go and do something positive with it? We’re going to talk about heritage, talk about positive things, ways to change, and learn from one another.”
He added the current system still works for some, “but not for all. There’s only so many points in trying to curb a behavior. We’re not looking to punish people. We’re looking to curb a behavior. Indigenous Policing Services, in conjunction with the court, will offer that to the North Island.”
Voller stressed that the work has and will be done with the groundwork laid by the two constables, Starr and Macdonald, who continue to collaborate with local First Nations’ communities. Voller also emphasized that none of this would be possible without the local presiding Judge Flewelling.
First Nations’ men represent up to 24 per cent of adult male offenders sent to provincial and federal prisons.
There is little to no data so far on Indigenous courts to track sentencing or recidivism rates of individuals who have gone through the court.