New First Nations Court opens in Nicola Valley

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Opening a new specialized court takes long and intensive planning and preparation by a lot of people and organizations. So it was fitting that the official opening of the Nicola Valley Indigenous Court on October 10, 2017 was marked by a ceremony at the Shulus Arbour on the lands of the Lower Nicola Band, near Merritt, involving some of those people.

A First Nations Court is a sentencing court. It provides an Indigenous perspective, based on a holistic and restorative approach, to sentencing Indigenous persons who have acknowledged responsibility for their criminal offences. Local Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers who have completed a program of orientation give advice on a healing plan. The healing plan may then be incorporated as part of a fit sentence for the Indigenous person who has pled guilty.

Photo credit: CFJC Today

More than two years ago, First Nations in the Nicola Valley invited the Provincial Court to work with them to develop a court that could help address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people involved in the criminal justice system. Since then, developing the court has taken the combined efforts of a local committee, headed by Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band, the Nicola Valley Community Justice Society, and the Provincial Court. B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General, Community Corrections, the community of Merritt, lawyers, the Law Foundation, and police were also involved.

Special mention must also be given to the contributions of Provincial Court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree, Merritt lawyer Cliff Thorstenson, and the Legal Services Society of BC who paid for the training of the Elders and the Court’s duty counsel.

Photo credit: CFJC Today

At the ceremony, dignitaries were led into the arbour by Nooaitch Elder Esther Shackelly and welcomed by hand drummers and dancers. After opening prayers from Elders of the Nlaka’pamux and Sylix / Okanagan communities, Chief Sumexheltz welcomed all to the territory. The keynote speakers, Chiefs McLeod, Sumexheltza, Walkem, Attorney General Eby, and Chief Judge Crabtree all stressed the importance of restorative justice, offenders being accountable to their respective communities, and in particular, the guidance of Elders to create individual Healing Plans for each offender.

Present to mark the occasion were Chief Aaron Sumexheltza, of the Lower Nicola Band, Chief Harvey McLeod, Chief David Walkem, Cooks Ferry Band (Spences Bridge), the Attorney General of British Columbia, David Eby, Mayor Neil Menard, City of Merritt, Chief Judge Crabtree, Regional Administrative Judge Ellen Burdett, Local Liaison Judge Stephen Harrison, Judge Christopher Cleaveley, who is assigned to the court for the first year, Ray Phillips, Nlaka’pamux lawyer and duty counsel, assigned Crown counsel, Andrew Duncan, and representatives of the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, Bill Veenstra and Michael Welsh. Children from the Lower Nicola Band School and members of the nearby communities also attended.

After the ceremony, a traditional lunch was held at the Merritt Civic Centre, to mark the end of a very special day in the Nicola Valley.

Chief Judge Crabtree commented, “The opening of the Provincial Court of BC’s fifth First Nations Court was a significant step in the ongoing process of community involvement in the creation of innovative solutions to improve the delivery of justice.”