A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a session at BC’s First Nations Court (FNC). It was an experience I won’t soon forget.
Despite working for legal aid for a while now, I don’t have much experience with courtrooms. I realize it’s not like Law and Order in real life, but that doesn’t stop me from hearing the theme song whenever I pass by the courthouse. So, the FNC was a splash of cold (refreshing!) water.
The first thing you notice when you enter the room is that it’s not your traditional court set up. Instead of facing off against each other, the judge, Crown counsel, defendant, and others sit around a horseshoe-shaped conference table. This alternate setting is representative of the court as a whole.
FNC can be used by anyone who self-identifies as Aboriginal — status or non-status, First Nations, Metis, or Inuit, living on or off reserve — and who has or will plead guilty to, or has been found guilty of, a crime. The court is there only for sentencing and follow-up. It takes a more holistic and restorative approach to justice, one that respects and values Aboriginal culture and supports Aboriginal communities. (Editor’s note: FNC may also hear cases related to child protection in some circumstances.)
This means the judge, Crown counsel, community members, and family work with the individual and the lawyer to find a healing plan — a plan to address the root causes of the crime and help the accused, the community, and the victim move on. Succeeding as a result of a healing plan is not a sure thing, however. You have to show real commitment to improving yourself and taking part in the program to take advantage of FNC.
For example, one of the cases I saw was a young man who had pleaded guilty to assaulting his step-father. He explained that his step-father had been abusive to him and his mother in the past. One night, after an argument, he assaulted his step-father. As he explained what had happened, he displayed genuine regret over his actions. He then went on to talk about how he was attending anger management sessions.
After he spoke, his mother told everyone about his childhood and her relationship with the step-father. It was powerful to watch; at one point, she began to cry, which caused her son to cry. I don’t think there was a single person in the room who didn’t experience some chest-tightening.
After she had spoken, the rest of the participants were given a chance to speak. At every session of the court, a council of elders also attends to give support. A few of the elders stood up to offer information on different programs that they thought might help him deal with his issues.
This session wasn’t the end for him, however. The judge ordered that he come back in a month to report on his progress and finalize his healing plan. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be back too.
You can find more information on First Nations Court, as well as about Aboriginal legal issues and services, by visiting www.legalaid.bc.ca/aboriginal.
Nate Prosser is the online outreach coordinator at LSS.