Salla Sukow sings the women warrior song at a recent Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw gathering. Ceremony will be part of the Indigenous Court process. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Salla Sukow sings the women warrior song at a recent Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw gathering. Ceremony will be part of the Indigenous Court process. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

Indigenous Court to offer alternative sentencing options

Final approval from the Judicial Council is expected in January

There has been a renaissance of Indigenous legal systems across Canada over the last several years, showing up in the form of small community initiatives, new classes and degrees at law schools.

In B.C., there is an alternative judicial process called Indigenous Court.

The latest of these courts under development is on northern Vancouver Island, led by the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations in partnership with the RCMP, local Crown council, judges and other stakeholders.

The court plan is queued for final review by the Judicial Council of B.C. in January. If approved, it will be the eighth in B.C., after New Westminster, North Vancouver, Kamloops, Duncan, the Nicola Valley, Prince George and one in Williams Lake which has yet to open.

Indigenous Court is an alternative sentencing method for people who accept responsibility for their crimes, and want to be sentenced by their community instead of the Crown.

“In the standard court system the actual thing I’m accused of is breaking the law, not for the harm done. There’s nothing to address the actual harm caused. Indigenous Court is a way that can create balance back into relationship and undo harm,” said Dean Wilson, acting health director for Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, and coordinator for this project.

In Indigenous Court, the offender will sit in a circle with elders, possibly the victim, family members, neighbours, and a judge. Everyone gets a chance to share how they have been affected by the offender’s actions, which will often include a lifetime of relationship history. An uncle might share memories of when the person was growing up and reflect on how their life choices have changed them. The offender also gets to speak, to share what’s been going on in their life that led to this place.

Together, the elders and judge agree on a sentence with the goal of re-mediating the offender and healing the harm done. A sentence might be going to a remote place to live off the land, with periodic teaching visits from elders. It will include some punitive action, as well as healing for the person based on what’s needed.

A system like this provides flexibility so the sentence makes sense for the people involved, rather than standard criminal code punishment. The intent is to be held accountable by the people directly affected, not an impersonal justice system.

“There’s anonymity facing the court compared to facing my sister, my grandmother,” Wilson said.

It’s still a legal process, with a judge ordering the sentence, and the crime will still reflect on the person’s record. Crown counsel will act as the gatekeeper for which cases are allowed to be sentenced in Indigenous Court. Sexual offences or domestic abuse, for example, will not be allowed to proceed through Indigenous Court.

Port Hardy’s acting Staff Sgt. Chris Voller says programs like this are part of reconciliation.

“To show culturally competent policing, which is our goal, I think we need to understand their culture. And their culture is collaborative, it’s taking into account the voice of elders, it’s accountability, and there are traditional means of dealing with something, not a westernized colonial system that’s been pushed onto them.”

That system, Voller says, simply hasn’t worked.

There is a plethora of data showing how Indigenous people are over-represented in Canadian prisons. In B.C. over one-third of incarcerated people are Indigenous, despite being only 5.9 per cent of the overall population.

Compared to all other categories of accused persons, Indigenous people continue to be jailed younger, denied bail more frequently, granted parole less often and hence released later in their sentence, over-represented in segregation, over-represented in remand custody, and more likely to be classified as higher risk offenders, according to a 2019 Department of Justice Canada report.

Justice is inherently a family matter, and Indigenous Court will require intense involvement from the community for that reason. The Port Hardy Indigenous court will be available for any Indigenous person served by local courts. Individuals must choose this route, Wilson stressed. Those who don’t want to take responsibility and make changes in their lives can still choose to go through the regular court system, he said.

“It’s not an easier route. It’s not about being let off by virtue of past hardships. It’s easier to go to court and take my penalty than having to face my sentence in my community. It’s about changing my behaviour,” says Wilson.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


IndigenousLaw & Justice

Just Posted

The Port McNeill Fire Hall. (Port McNeill Fire Rescue photo)
Port McNeill Fire Rescue gets big financial boost from government

Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom was thrilled by the funding announcement

The river behind the ball field. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Pulled by the flow: river stirs up childhood memories

Gazette editor makes trek through Port Hardy wilderness to swim in the river

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Alert Bay council has decided to cancel Canada Day celebrations. (Alertbay.ca photo)
Alert Bay council cancels Canada Day celebrations

The decision was made in wake of the mass graves being found at former residential schools

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Val Litwin is the latest candidate to declare his bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership. (Litwin campaign video)
Political newcomer joins contest for B.C. Liberal leadership

Val Litwin a former B.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO

Six United Way chapters around the province are merging into United Way B.C. (News Bulletin file photo)
United Way Central and Northern Island merging with other chapters around B.C.

Money raised in communities will stay in those communities, agency says

Golden Ears Mountains, captured in May 2021. (Black Press Media files)
2nd year of day passes required for entry into 5 provincial parks launches in B.C.

Pilot program seeks to protect the environment by addressing visitor surges amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Lincoln Mckoen. (YouTube)
Anglican bishop of the central Interior resigns over sexual misconduct allegations

Lincoln Mckoen was elected as a bishop of the Territory of the People region last year

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc reserve. (Allen Douglas/Kamloops This Week)
Tk’emlups preparing for archaeological work at B.C. residential school site where remains found

The 215 graves are, to the band’s knowledge, undocumented deaths for which it is still collecting records

Fans watch the warm-up before Game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in NHL playoff hockey action Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Montreal. Quebec’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions will allow 2,500 fans to attend the game for the first time in fourteen months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Two-thirds of Canadians say governments shouldn’t lift all COVID-19 restrictions

Poll reports Canadians who gained pandemic weight say they have gained 16 pounds on average

Paul Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch during Ontario court proceedings via video link in Napanee, Ont., on October 5, 2018. Teen killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo is set for a parole hearing today. The designated dangerous offender, has been eligible for full parole for more than three years. Bernardo’s horrific crimes in the 1980s and early 1990s include for kidnapping, torturing and killing Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy near St. Catharines, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Banning
Killer rapist Paul Bernardo faces parole hearing today; victim families opposed

Designated dangerous offender has been eligible for full parole for more than three years.

People look over the damage after a tornado touched down in Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal, Monday, June 21, 2021. Dozens of homes were damaged and one death has been confirmed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
One dead and extensive damage as tornado hits Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal

Damage reported in several parts of the city, and emergency teams dispatched to sectors hardest hit

Most Read