The Provincial Court of British Columbia now operates First Nations Courts in four B.C. communities. First Nations Court began in 2006 in New Westminster, under the leadership of Judge Marion Buller. It was followed by courts in North Vancouver (serving Whistler, Squamish and the North Shore), Kamloops, and Duncan. Judge Stella Frame sits in Cknucwentn First Nations Court in Kamloops. She describes how that court got its start and how it works.
“Kamloops Cknucwentn First Nations Sentencing Court has been running for over two and a half years now. It has been a welcome addition to the work we do to help prevent the relentless cycle of offending that can often grip people.
Before First Nations Court opened in Kamloops in March 2013, local judges were frustrated by their inability to effectively address the root causes of offending by aboriginal people. Fortunately, one determined local lawyer with the support of her band changed that. Linda Thomas of the Tk’emlups Indian Band urged the Provincial Court to create a First Nations court in Kamloops. Although no funds were available to build a dedicated court room or to provide additional court time with staff and judges, the local judges supported the idea and encouraged Ms. Thomas to come up with a plan to create a specialized court with the limited means available.
She did. An Aboriginal Community Justice Council was formed to create the court. It includes representatives of area bands, friendship societies, Crown and defence lawyers, youth and adult probation offices, Corrections Centre liaison, police, sexual assault centre, family justice centre, and Elizabeth Fry and John Howard Societies. The Chief Judge supported the plan, obtained support for it from outside agencies, and attended planning meetings to show the Court’s commitment to the initiative. The Community Council established the parameters for resources they could bring to the First Nations Court. It then formed the Aboriginal Justice Council, made up of Elders and Knowledge Keepers trained in court procedures and sentencing principles by retired Judge Cunliffe Barnett.
What does the Cknucwentn First Nations Court look like? Different from any other court you will walk into! Before court commences, an Elder smudges the courtroom with sweetgrass or sage and then offers a smudge to any attendee who wishes to partake. The judge is brought in after everyone is assembled. We would prefer to have a courtroom designed for restorative justice proceedings, but we presently make do with participants seated in many chairs set around the table where lawyers sit when the room is used for traditional court proceedings. Once the judge is in place, an Elder performs a prayer, usually in Secwepemc language.
As in other criminal courts, each case is called and a plea is taken. Since this is a sentencing court, accused people plead guilty. But unlike other courts, the accused sits at the table with the prosecutor and defence lawyer, the judge, and a panel of Elders. An accused person may invite support people to the table. And victims are welcome to join the table, though few attend court. We have had probation officers, drug and alcohol counsellors, and even foster parents attend. Often, representatives of the White Buffalo Aboriginal and Metis Health Society, the Friendship Centre or the area bands attend to offer advice about available resources in order to help craft a rehabilitative and restorative plan. The Crown prosecutor then reads in the circumstances of the offence(s) and the Crown’s sentencing position. The Defence lawyer makes submissions on behalf of the accused person.
Once the lawyers have had their say, the accused speaks, expressing remorse and trying to identify the reasons for his or her offending. The Elders ask questions, offer advice and more often than not a stern word or two. Once this sharing is finished, the judge imposes a sentence.
This is not a typical sentence because it attaches a healing plan. First the judge imposes the “usual” sentence that would be imposed in any criminal court. It may or may not include jail. Then a probation order is prepared which typically includes ordinary terms but also includes the healing plan - quite a different creation.
The healing plan is the commitment the accused makes to him or herself and to the Elders. Its purpose is to reduce recidivism and increase willing and active engagement in rehabilitation. The plan may include such things as attending the White Buffalo Health Society to be set up with a counsellor, attending a resource to get housing plans underway, making an education plan to pursue a career, attending sweats, contacting an Elder, participating in cultural activities, performing community work, and such other rehabilitative tasks. The healing plan is crafted to reflect the insights the accused has expressed as well as the recommendations the Elders have made. It is far more engaged and tailored than a traditional sentence.
When people comply with traditional probation orders, the judge never sees them again. Not so in First Nations Court. The person under sentence has to return each month to report on his or her progress and to receive a dressing down if the Elders are not impressed. If they are impressed, sincere encouragement is given and the recipients respond very well to this.
Once the sentence is successfully completed, the person under sentence receives a blanket in a blanket ceremony. The blankets were acquired by the White Buffalo Society and sent to various artists in the Kamloops area who applied a unique design to each blanket. They are truly beautiful. The recipient gives a speech and congratulations are expressed all around. People have been known to come back to court even if their order is over just to receive their blanket and participate in the ceremony. It is a touching and rewarding experience.
In a perfect world, we would have more restorative justice courts for many areas of our bail and sentencing work: youth, mental health, domestic violence, and drug addiction to name a few. Perhaps one day…”
For more information on B.C.’s other therapeutic courts see Specialized Courts.
Button blankets photographed by Tammy Mahlum