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 for northern Vancouver Island

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, prepares a dose of the Moderna vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Almost two in three Canadians surveyed recently said they trust COVID-19 vaccines to be both safe and effective. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Northern Health to open 30 COVID vaccine clinics for oldest residents, Indigenous seniors

Health authority says it plans to vaccinate nearly 15,000 people in Phase Two

(Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Murder charge laid in February 2020 stabbing death of Smithers man

Michael Egenolf is charged with the second-degree murder of Brodie Cumiskey

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

The village is hoping for a start date in early April with completion as soon as possible. (Granisle Village website photo/Houston Today)
Granisle’s curling rink to receive a facelift

Receives a $362,148 provincial grant

A huge milestone for Granisle to reach 50 years, said Mayor. (Village of Granisle photo/Lakes District News)
Granisle’s 50 years anniversary celebration postponed

The celebrations are now set to be held in 2022

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Tam says the addition of two new vaccines will help Canadians get immunized faster

Const. Allan Young. Photo: Abbotsford Police Department
Manslaughter charge laid in Nelson death of Abbotsford police officer

Allan Young died after an incident in downtown Nelson last summer

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

Most Read