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Elders of the First Nations Court

Picture courtesy of Courthouse Libraries BC

New Westminster’s courthouse – home of the First Nations Court

This spring the province’s fourth First Nations Court (FNC) opened. There are now FNCs in New Westminster, North Vancouver, Kamloops, and Duncan.

Aboriginal people are over-represented in jails across Canada; a recent report shows that 23% of federal inmates are of Aboriginal descent while Aboriginal people only make up 4% of Canada’s population. FNC was created to tackle this problem.

The court, which can be used by anyone who self-identifies as Aboriginal, is not a traditional court. It takes a different approach to sentencing; one that Judge Buller Bennett – the presiding judge of New Westminster’s FNC – says “[takes] a First Nations perspective, being a holistic and restorative approach to sentencing.” This means that everyone – the judge, Crown counsel, community members, and the individual – all work together to create a healing plan. A healing plan addresses the root cause of the crime and aims to help the accused, the community, and the victim move on. This focus on community and collaboration is what is unique about FNC.

Every session of FNC is attended by a group of First Nations elders. The elders’ role is to represent the community at the hearings. They share their experiences, talk about resources available to help with whatever issues the person being sentenced may have, and just generally try to engage and create a sense of community and responsibility to that community that may have been missing. For the elders, it is a very personal experience; it’s not just a chance to help the individual but to help create a stronger community as well.

Ray Auckland – from the Tsimshian Nation in Prince Rupert and from the Raven Clan – is one of the elders at the FNC in New Westminster. He sees the FNC as a chance to help those who didn’t have the opportunities that he did. As a child, Ray’s adopted parents managed to keep him out of residential school, a fate that his siblings and many other people in his village couldn’t avoid. He was able to preserve the language and way of life in the village. Seeing the effects of residential schools on his peers was one of the motivators behind his decision to join the FNC.

There was one fellow from my village who was incarcerated a few years ago. I found out that he went to Indian residential school. He was taken as a young child of six years old and was traumatized by his experience there. He resorted to drinking to cover up his shame and hurt.

It’s been 10 years since this person has been incarcerated. He’s no longer drinking and doing well. He still keeps in touch with me and phones me often. We have a good friendship.

This relationship showed me how much of a difference that support can be to help make a person’s life better.

This is one of the main reasons that I got involved with First Nations Court.

This attitude and the participation of the elders are essential to the court’s success. One of the most positive things about the court is “the court’s role in helping people take responsibility for their actions and for changing their own lives and dealing with the consequences when they make poor choices,” said Queenie Archibald, an Ojibway elder. The elders help combat recidivism by helping not only to increase the access to much needed services such as drug treatment, education, and counselling, but also by creating a sense of community and obligation that helps offenders think of themselves as contributing members of society.

This is what Clifford White, who had worked in the justice system for over 40 years, liked most about FNC — it’s a chance to see a system designed to provide support to the individual and an opportunity for change:

Where else in the criminal justice system will you find individuals wanting to come back. Judge Buller Bennett provides them with an opportunity to not only make their live better, but also an opportunity to give back in helping their brothers and sisters along the way. What an empowering concept!

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