Indigenous Justice – Part 1

Sunrise on the delta


Huge kudos to CBC North!  It has tried to ignite a discussion about aboriginal justice by hosting an “Indigenous Justice Forum” in Yellowknife on April 27th that featured a documentary about Tony Kalluk – “Tony: Back from the Brink”.


Although the documentary suggests that Tony has managed to get his demons under control, I am not sure that is the case; only time will tell.  The more important message is that Tony is not a bad man making deliberate choices to engage in criminal misconduct – rather he is a simple man with a wife and kids who is struggling to deal with issues that seem to overwhelm him.  Sending a Tony (or Antoinette) to jail, it seems clear, is only going to harden the heart and fuel the anger making it increasingly difficult for to get to the core of what needs to change to live successfully in a community.


Articles about the Forum, at which justice in Northern communities and alternatives to incarceration were discussed, and the CBC’s related reporting are found here:


At the Forum, many speakers (panel and audience members) spoke about the justice system and potential alternatives.  Regrettably, one of the panelists took advantage of the opportunity to repeat a familiar theme – “I am angry because control was taken from First Nations peoples and that authority should be returned to us/me.”


Is this relevant because it lays the blame for staggering First Nations’ crime rates at the feet of white colonialism (where it likely belongs)?  That fact alone is not news.  I hear that message every single day of the week from offenders who tell me they are in charged because of someone else “he gave me a shot” or “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time” (translated = I was there when those guys asked me to break into the Northern with them) or “I hit her because she couldn’t stop bothering”.


Or is the point that returning autonomy to First Nations is the cure in that it will resolve the anger and First Nations can then deal with their problems internally?  At the end of the day, however, the speaker offered no real solutions and he did not answer the question, if First Nations have the capacity to exercise power responsibly, why are  they doing nothing, as a political entity, to deal with the mind-boggling Northern crime rate?  Let’s not forget, for most crime, particularly for most violent crime, where there is an aboriginal offender, there is an aboriginal victim.  Why is Fort Smith or Ulukhaktok or Taloyoak not saying “We are not going to tolerate anymore violence”?


At the end of the week, CBC Yellowknife hosted a Territorial call-in with several commentators in which many of the themes that were discussed at the Forum were repeated by listeners.  We heard that there is thought to be an urgent and critical need for a healing / treatment centre based in the NWT.  We heard that the NWT Territorial Court’s Wellness Court is making a huge difference in the lives of some offenders.  We heard that criminal behaviour is seen as directly related to disconnectedness from culture and land.  We heard a sense that police and courts take family members away to jail for reasons that are simply not clear.


This latter point was particularly heartbreaking in that it reinforced the entirety of my experience working in the North.  I have worked as defence counsel in almost every community in Nunavut and the NWT.  Again and again I meet people to whom “justice” is being delivered who see it as something that is being imposed upon the community and not even close to being an institutional expression of shared values (as it is, I believe, accepted to be in the south as part of southern culture).


My impression is that there is no real shared sense that the Justice system is a collective expression of condemnation for misconduct.  It is not in Northern bones that “punishment” is the Court repudiating the conduct of the offender on behalf of the community.  Rather, the read I get is that “Justice” has been,  and continues to be, a bunch of southerners introducing rules and punishments that are simply not part of local culture.


What is sad about this for me is that at the end of the day until the community takes responsibility for what needs to change, First Nations will not be.  It will forever be a variant of the residential school experience where people are not permitted to chart their own destiny because someone with authority fills in what s/he thinks is best.


Loren McGinnis’ interview of a fellow who has managed to turn his life around underlined the problem in that at no point in the interview did anyone suggest that spending time in jail with a bunch of other violent men was of real help in turning around his life.  Instead, what helped him was a counsellor who asked him “what happened to you?”  He only made real progress at what he called a “recovery house” where he had daily help with the issues that brought him into conflict with the law.  As for the benefit of jail, ironically, he felt that he needed to hide his efforts at self help “reading about AA and NA” from his fellow inmates.


One of the most hopeful comments at the Forum came from Paul Andrew who observed in his concluding remarks that one can talk about colonialism and residential schools, but that ultimately, people have to start combating what has become normalized but problematic behaviour in Northern communities.  He finished n this note: “In the community, three quarters of the community might be sober. But guess what we concentrate on? That one quarter. That one quarter that might be out of control. They’re the ones who control our communities.  It’s time for sober people to take back our communities.” The audience broke out in applause.