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

Dr. Bernhardt’s freshly planted strawberries. (Mary Lowther photo)
Mary Lowther column: Hoping for a bumper crop of strawberries

Because our new plot gets a lot of sun, maybe strawberries won’t become consumed by wood bugs

Sarah Simpson
Sarah Simpson Column: Newton’s first law of motion

I could have sworn I told them to help each other get unbuckled and to come inside.

Commercial property owners in Duncan will have an opportunity to beef up their security in 2021 with matching grants from the municipality. (File photo)
City of Duncan to help commercial properties increase security

Municipality to set up matching grant opportunities

John and Jeri Wyatt hope the upcoming North Cowichan public hearing will move things along toward exclusion of the Chemainus River Campground from the Agricultural Land Reserve. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Input sought on Chemainus campground ALR exclusion at public hearing

Matter back on the agenda after a late reprieve in 2019 for Chemainus River Campground owners

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Lord Tweedsmuir’s Tremmel States-Jones jumps a player and the goal line to score a touchdown against the Kelowna Owls in 2019. The face of high school football, along with a majority of other high school sports, could significantly change if a new governance proposal is passed at the B.C. School Sports AGM May 1. (Malin Jordan)
Power struggle: New governance model proposed for B.C. high school sports

Most commissions are against the new model, but B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board is in favour

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Most Read