The Provincial Court has responded to the needs of First Nations communities and mentally disordered and substance addicted offenders by establishing several innovative specialized courts. By consulting and collaborating with communities and social and health service agencies, community corrections, police and lawyers, the Court has attempted to focus its resources in more effective ways in various parts of the province.
About Indigenous Courts
The BC Provincial Court is proud of the work its Indigenous Courts do. Developed in consultation with local First Nations, the community at large, the Legal Aid BC, Crown counsel, defence lawyers, Community Corrections, police, and groups like the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC, each one is uniquely designed to meet the needs of the communities it serves.
These courts do not conduct trials. They are sentencing courts that provide support and healing to assist in rehabilitation and to reduce recidivism while also acknowledging and repairing the harm done to victims and the community. Their focus is collaborative and holistic, recognizing the unique circumstances of Indigenous offenders within the framework of existing laws.
While each court has developed participants and procedures to meet its communities’ needs, the Indigenous Courts share certain elements. Local First Nations communities are encouraged to contribute to the proceedings. Proceedings may begin with a smudge ceremony. Such ceremonies have been used by Indigenous groups for centuries as a way to cleanse the spirit, prepare the mind for what lies ahead, and bring forth good energy. In court the ceremony serves as an acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous practices, an engagement with cultural norms, and a grounding for the long day ahead.
Offenders generally sit in a circle with the judge, lawyers, and others – the circle may also include victims, First Nations Elders, and support people. Participants discuss the offending behaviour and its impact. Offenders are given time to share their backgrounds and special circumstances. Together, they create a healing plan that can be incorporated in the judge’s sentence.
Although jail sentences are sometimes imposed, the healing plan is at the heart of BC’s Indigenous Courts. It balances the rigour and legal requirements of the traditional court system with Indigenous ways. A healing plan can include both traditional and developmental forms of sentencing, such as probation, attending sweat lodges, addiction treatment, or reconnecting with community.
An offender whose sentence includes a healing plan leaves court with two key responsibilities: to work with identified support and service providers and to report their progress to the Court, where they’ll receive the feedback warranted by their effort and progress. A blanket ceremony symbolizing a new beginning may be held for an offender who successfully completes a healing plan. The blanket represents strength against vulnerabilities and the unknown. When an Elder wraps someone in a ceremonial blanket, it symbolizes support, protection, growth, and community acceptance and forgiveness.
The Provincial Court of BC now has seven Indigenous Courts:
New Westminster First Nations Court (opened November 2006)
North Vancouver Chet wa nexwníw̓ ta S7eḵw’í7tel Indigenous Court (opened February 2012, serves Whistler, Squamish and the North Shore)
Kamloops Cknucwentn First Nations Sentencing Court (opened March 2013)
Duncan First Nations Court (opened May 2013)
Nicola Valley Indigenous Court (opened in Merritt, October 2017)
Prince George Indigenous Court (opened April 2018)
Williams Lake Indigenous Court (opened December 2020)
The Court has also announced the opening of an Indigenous court in Hazelton.
Several Canadian justice system professionals and academics have shown interest in using BC’s Indigenous Courts as a model for courts in their own communities.
See “Traditional Justice”, Globe and Mail, January 9, 2015 for the story behind a case in the First Nations Court in Duncan, and “Can First Nations Court stop Indigenous women from ending up in prison?”, Public Radio International, April 18, 2018 for a story from North Vancouver First Nations Court.
For more details see these eNews articles:
New First Nations Court opens in Nicola Valley
Cknucwentn First Nations Court, Kamloops
UVIC law students’ perspectives on First Nations Court - Cowichan Valley
First Nations Court in New Westminster
TRU’s Indigenous Law Students Association visits Cknúcwentn First Nations Court
About Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conferences
For several years the Provincial Court worked with a group of Elders in New Westminster and representatives from the Ministries of Children and Family Development, Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, and Justice to create a new process for aboriginal families in child protection cases. The result of this work was the launch of the Aboriginal Family Healing Court Conference (AFHCC) pilot project in New Westminster on January 24, 2016.
In BC, when there are child protection concerns and a family and the Ministry of Children and Family Development do not agree on the way forward, a case conference is often scheduled. A case conference is an informal meeting between the judge and the parties to try to resolve the disagreement before the case escalates to a trial. The AFHCC project provides families with support before, during and after the case conference, with the following goals:
The project offers families support, flexibility, choice, and cultural connection. Key elements of the AFHCC include:
A cultural ceremony is held for families when they achieve the goals set out in their Healing and Wellness Plan to honour their hard work and success.
In operation since December 4, 2001, the Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver (DTCV) is a specialized court that uses a problem-solving approach to the criminal process for individuals who commit offences to support their addiction to hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin or other opiates, or crystal methamphetamine. DTCV uses an integrated, collaborative approach between judges, the prosecution, defence counsel, community corrections, and health and social service agencies to assist offenders in overcoming substance abuse and to reduce the harms caused by addiction.
By using the principles of “therapeutic jurisprudence,” it achieves the goals of rehabilitation of the offenders and promotion of safer communities through reduced criminal offending. By March 31, 2021, almost 300 people had graduated from DTCV.
In April 2012, the DTCV received the Premier’s Innovation and Excellence Award for the Lower Mainland in recognition of the integration and excellent work of the multiple teams involved in the treatment, support and recovery of DTCV participants.
See Vancouver drug treatment court builds record of success, Vancouver Sun, March 7, 2016 – it captures the spirit of DTCV - and Drug Treatment Court celebrates a graduation (eNews).
Many offenders in downtown Vancouver have health and social issues that include alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty. The Downtown Community Court (DCC), which opened in 2008, is a partnership between the Court, the Ministry of Justice, and social and health service agencies. Its goal is to reduce crime, improve public safety, and provide integrated justice, health and social services to offenders in a timely manner, while holding them accountable for their actions. This Court includes a coordinator, Crown counsel, defence lawyers, Vancouver police officers, sheriffs, court clerks, probation officers, Native Courtworkers, and other health and social service agencies located in or near the Court.
For more information see:
- Celebrating the 10th anniversary of Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court (eNews)
- The Provincial Court and the Community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (eNews)
- Judge Burgess interviewed on DCC – CBC Early Edition Jan 2016
- Report from the DCC Executive Board on the Final Evaluation of the Downtown Community Court (2013)
- Examining the Impact of Case Management in Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court (2014)
- Downtown Community Court in Vancouver: Efficiency Analysis (2013)
- Compilation of Research on the Vancouver Downtown Community Court 2008 to 2012
- Vancouver Downtown Community Court, BC Ministry of Justice
- Downtown Community Court videos, Justice Education Society
Around the province judges and service providers have initiated local domestic violence courts using different models. A judge-led initiative has operated in Duncan since 2009. It adopts a collaborative, therapeutic approach in which information and services are coordinated, with service providers attending domestic violence court weekly to facilitate access to information and services for victims and offenders. In 2013 a similar court was established in Nanaimo through the collaborative effort of the local coordinating committee for domestic safety.
In Kelowna and Penticton, particular days are scheduled for domestic violence cases, so they are given early trial dates and can proceed through court without delay. And in 2016 a front end domestic violence remand court with a dedicated Crown counsel team was established in Surrey to expedite domestic violence cases. All bail, guilty pleas, and sentencing hearings involving family violence and estimated to take less than 30 minutes are heard in one courtroom.
Cowichan Valley Domestic Violence Court, Duncan (eNews)
Nanaimo Domestic Violence Court (eNews)
Okanagan Trial Scheduling Initiative (eNews)
New remand courtroom in Surrey to deal only with domestic violence charges (eNews)
In 2010, the Provincial Court responded to a community-led initiative to address street crime in Victoria by adopting an integrated approach to mentally disordered and drug addicted chronic offenders. The Victoria Police Department had estimated that over a 40 month period, 324 homeless people in Victoria were responsible for 23,033 police encounters at a cost of $9.2 million. The Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Mental Illness had estimated that about 50 per cent of Victoria’s homeless population struggled with substance abuse and about 25 per cent were affected by significant psychiatric problems, often caused or exacerbated by substance abuse.
The Victoria Integrated Court (“VIC”) was established to improve access to health, social and economic services for this group of chronic offenders; to improve public safety; and to hold offenders accountable for their actions in a timely manner. Police, health, social workers and community corrections service providers had responded to the Task Force findings by forming integrated teams to deliver emergency and health services to homeless, mentally disordered and addicted individuals, many of whom were coming into conflict with the law. VIC deals with people supported by one of these teams.
VIC is not a trial court but eligible individuals may have bail hearings or plead guilty and be sentenced in VIC. Those who plead not guilty are tried in the regular court system. Members of the Island Health's Assertive Community Treatment teams and Community Living BC's Community Response Teams, including community outreach workers, social workers, probation officers and police, meet regularly with the dedicated Crown counsel and defence counsel to discuss cases and plan support and supervision in the community.
The Integrated Court approach to sentencing shares many similarities with the holistic model implemented in First Nations Court. Judges sit in VIC for a year or longer in order to become familiar with the people appearing in court and those working with them. In VIC proceedings judges are told about housing, medical and other issues affecting an offender and they are given recommendations for terms which may be ordered to help a team support and supervise the offender. Community service is frequently ordered as part of a VIC sentence. For example, VIC participants have helped to create a mural and a community garden where they can learn gardening skills, grow their own produce, and earn a share in any profits from produce sold.
For more information see:
- Saving lives, one life at a time (eNews)
- Victoria's Integrated Court celebrates 5th birthday and positive results (eNews)
- Lights... action … camera... (eNews)
- Victoria Integrated Court engages in community consultations (eNews)
- Victoria Integrated Court Report 2015
- Victoria Integrated Court Report 2014
- Victoria Integrated Court integrating Health, Justice, and Social Services – Belliveau and Mason, 2014
- Victoria Integrated Court Report 2013
- Victoria Integrated Court In Its Second Year - Report and Appendices 2012
- Victoria Integrated Court Report 2011
Appendix to Victoria Integrated Court Report 2011
Opened May 6, 2021, the Kelowna Integrated Court is the result of years of work by groups and individuals in Kelowna seeking to reduce crime and improve public safety by integrating health and social services with the justice system in order to address the root causes of criminal behaviour.
Like Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court and the Victoria Integrated Court, the Kelowna Integrated Court focuses primarily on offenders struggling with addiction, living with mental health issues, or experiencing homelessness. The Kelowna Integrated Court is not a trial court but eligible individuals may have bail hearings or plead guilty and be sentenced there.
Agencies with knowledge of an offender meet with Integrated Court Crown and defence lawyers and a probation officer before court to share information about the individual’s needs and the resources available to address them. The lawyers present this information in submissions at a sentencing hearing to help the judge impose a responsive, timely, and focused sentence.
A variety of government and community organizations offering mental health and other services provide support and supervision for offenders bound by bail or sentencing orders, helping them lead healthier, more stable lives.
The Kelowna Integrated Court's goals include improving access to health, social, and economic services for the offenders it deals with; improving public safety by reducing recidivism; and holding offenders accountable for their actions in a timely manner.