OHSWEKEN — A gathering of about 100 lawyers, judges, and court workers got an education on Six Nations culture, history, beliefs and the multigenerational effects of the residential school system on Friday at Six Nations Polytechnic. The idea was to make people within the judicial system more understanding of the differences between Indigenous thought, culture and practices from that of mainstream Canada.
It was also an opportunity for a review of the newly established Aboriginal Court, which began two years ago in Brantford. This new take on the judicial system sets aside all the pomp and circumstance of the British Court System with its robes, bar and high-sitting judge’s bench. Instead, an Onkwehonwe person accused of a crime is dealt with on a level playing field with lawyers and judges removing the robes for suits and sitting in a circle with the accused, his or her family and lawyers on the same level.
Sounds simple, but this is a style of court that is conducted more as a conversation than the adversarial nature of the Canadian court system.
Justice Gethin Edward along with lawyer Sarah Dover, who has defended many cases involving First Nations clients, pushed to see this more culturally sensitive style implemented in Brantford, which is next door to Canada’s most populous reserve at Six Nations.
A number of Six Nations people spoke at the seminar including historian Rick Hill, who explained different worldviews and cultural beliefs held by the Haudenosaunee over past and present times.
Others spoke of their personal experiences within the Canadian court, while others offered heartbreaking stories of their personal experiences and that of their parents within the residential school system.
Jan Longboat spoke of her work with victims of the residential school system and how the legacy from that is passed down through generations.
“We started the Aboriginal Court in 2014,” recalls Six Nations’ born Justice Edward. “It’s been going for just over 18 months now and it’s good. You try and curb your enthusiasm but when you see people engaged in a process wanting things to be different that is good. What has been missing is this idea that a justice system can affect change that is good and is therapeutic.”
Edward said that there are lots of stories about people that have been affected in positive ways by the justice system, but he is seeing this almost all the time within the Aboriginal Court since it began.
“I am seeing this every time we convene court when we listen to these individuals,” he says. “It’s only through listening that we can understand.”
Although working within the established judicial system for years, as a lawyer before becoming a judge, he was critical of the intimidation factor the system presents to those who come before the godlike judge.
“I remember when I was a lawyer,” he says. “We got into that bunker at 102 Wellington Street and we’d put through 25-30 guilty pleas a day and we’d spend, like five minutes talking with someone about what it is that went on and why it happened, and then you’d regurgitate that in front of the judge. Then the judge would ‘bang’ give them a sentence. How [does] that help anyone? So this is an opportunity that we have to simply sit back, take our time and try to understand.”
It is not only good for the accused, it is also good for a judge to try and understand people with a different understanding than the mainstream.
“It’s as therapeutic for me as I hope it is for the individuals that come before me,” says Edward. “It kind of gives you a second chance at things as a judge. It makes you really think about what is it we are trying to do when we try a case.”
He takes this different way of hearing any case into the mainstream court with him as well.
“I’m thinking, wow, maybe we should rethink how we should do things for all folks and not just First Nations. Is it any surprise that all of that formality of the court was started in jolly old England where they paid lip service to the idea that the Magna Charta established some kind of equality, but it didn’t,” says Edward. “Let’s face it, landholders wanted to make sure that everyone knew what the pecking order was so the courts were established in such a way that clearly demonstrates that hierarchy where the judge is up there and the people are down there and you impose things as a judge when you have that.”
He has found that, even in the 18 months the program has been in place, when you sit in the round with the people you come up with solutions, and Justice Edward has found that getting out of the robe and off the bench relaxes the adversarial nature of the established court system, especially for those already intimidated by having to go before a judge.
Those in attendance were taking notes and listening with great interest, but the most important gage by which to judge the success of such a gathering is the amount to talk and discussion between those in attendance after the event closes. If that is any indicator, many more people within the system went home with a different understanding that will help them understand the uniqueness of the Onkwehonwe people and their culture when trying a case involving Onkwehonwe people.