BRANTFORD – For anyone used to the pomp and protocol of an Ontario Court procedure, Friday’s “Sentencing Circle” in Courtroom #2 of the Darling Street Court House for Six Nations resident Don Tripp must have looked strange, to say the least.
Through his legal advisor, Sarah Dover, Tripp asked that the court allow his participating witnesses to sit in a manner more respectful of Onkwehonwe culture and practice than the starchy Crown Court, with its bar, benches and judge sitting high above it all.
“According to the Gayanashagowa, (the Great Law or Great Peace) we have the right to talk to another person face to face. That’s how we do it,” said Oneida Clan Chief, John Elijah with his Clan Mother sitting beside him.
When Justice Martha Zivolik agreed, chairs were brought in and arranged into a circle in the courtroom to allow the participants to speak eye-to-eye to the court as they explained Onkwehonwe law and the centuries old conflict resolution practices of the Haudenosaunee.
Zivolik, Dover and Crown Attourny David King sat in the circle with more than a dozen traditional Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Chippewa witnesses on behalf of Tripp as, one by one, each stood and spoke of how Haudenossaunee law works and why, if he is going to be sentenced, Tripp should be sentenced under Haudenosaunee law and not British law.
It has been five and a half years since Six Nations Police arrested Six Nations resident Don Tripp and convicted him of being in possession of unregistered firearms and possession of a quantity of Marijuana. The only charges still left to deal with are restricted weapons charges for two guns.
Tripp, who did not have a Clan, was recently adopted into the Oneida Nation by a Clan Mother from the Oneida Nation who was present, and through her spokesman, Chief John Elijah, asked the court to release Tripp to the Clan, which has the responsibility of correcting and teaching Tripp the values of the Clan and the Nation.
The duties, responsibilities and obligations of the Clan in the “rehabilitation” of a Clan member who has gone astray or is in need of further teaching was also explained.
“Let us do this,” Chief Elijah challenged Zivolik. “You have your laws, we have ours. That is what the Two Row Wampum is about.”
Justice Zivolik listened intently as speakers explained the circle wampum and the importance of the Clan in Onkwehonwe culture; the Two Row Wampum and the intent of the foundational agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the settler governments, and the Silver Covenant Chain and the importance of keeping it untarnished through mutually respectful dialogue.
Also addressed was the effect of the systematic breakdown of the Clan system at the hands of settler government legislations backed by the courts, and the forced introduction of white man’s religion through the residential schools.
“I accept everything you said,” said Zivolik after the Clan system was explained through the Circle Wampum. “It really makes a lot of sense.”
Jesse Ireland, who won an important hunting and fishing rights case several years ago using the 1701 Nanfan Treaty, explained to Justice Zivolik the right to hunt, unrestricted, and the right to possess arms for that purpose, which Tripp is charged with.
“You want to incarcerate him further because he had two guns that you believe are unregistered, or restricted,” said Ireland in a slow and clear voice. “Those restrictions are not on our people, yet you keep implying they are. He is now suffering from too much stress which has caused him two strokes and a heart attack.”
Former Grand Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, a precursor to the Assembly of First Nations, Del Riley spoke next. He was one of the people that negotiated with then Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, to have Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act added after Indigenous backlash over the first draft of the constitution, which did not do anything to protect treaties made between Indians and the Crown.
“Right now I am helping out with a similar situation in the north,” said Riley. “In that case they used Section 35 to protect their hunting rights,” he said. “Because, they need the guns to hunt and that is protected.”
He told the judge that, as far as he is concerned. Mr. Tripp was denied his constitutional rights under Section 35 for those weapons charges.
“We have to get rid of the racism of the Indian Act,” said Riley. “I am hoping some day that some judge will stand up and say, ‘this is wrong.’”
Judge Zivolik once again thanked the speakers for their clarity of thought and eloquent presentations.
“You have helped me understand something that has been hundreds of years in the doing,” she said. “Maybe the tide has changed and the river is flowing in a different fashion right now.”
“Today, this judge was shown a different road to take in dealing with Onkwehonwe people,” said Tripp after the hearing.
The sentencing hearings will continue in February.