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

Recipients of last year’s Winter Games Legacy Grant funds. Bulletin file.
City of Kimberley accepting applications for Winter Games Legacy grants

Grants are available for amateur sports organizations

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick. Bulletin file
No need for travel bans: Kimberley Mayor

While there has been plenty of chatter lately about the possibility of… Continue reading

Author Rosa Jordan
Join Kimberley Library for an author Zoom session

Join the Kimberley Public Library for an evening as the award-winning novelist… Continue reading

Cranbrook Search and Rescue safely and effectively rescued an injured snowmobiler on January 16. Pictured are six members took part in a Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course, which also took place on the 16th. Members are required to have at minimum AST1 for winter responses. (Facebook/Cranbrook SAR file)
Cranbrook SAR rescues injured snowmobiler from Lumberton area

A helicopter crew assisted in safely and quickly located the injured person

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

Inspection of bridge crossing on a B.C. forest service road. (B.C. Forest Practices Board)
B.C. falling behind in maintenance of forest service roads

Auditor finds nearly half of bridges overdue for repair

(Black Press Media files)
Woman steals bottles of wine after brandishing stun baton in New Westminster

Police say the female suspect was wearing a beige trench coat with fur lining

Stand up paddleboarder Christie Jamieson is humbled to her knees as a pod of transient orcas put on a dramatic show on Jan. 19 in the Ucluelet Harbour. (Nora O’Malley photo)
UPDATED WITH VIDEO: Vancouver Island paddle boarder surrounded by pod of orcas

“My whole body is still shaking. I don’t even know what to do with this energy.”

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canadian malls, conference centres, hotels offer up space for COVID vaccination centres

Commercial real estate association REALPAC said that a similar initiative was seeing success in the U.K.

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States

About 25,000 National Guard members have been dispatched to Washington

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

Most Read