SIX NATIONS – The Six Nations Polytechnic main hall was packed out on Friday as Judges, lawyers, Crown Attorneys, defence lawyers, parole officers, and others within the Canadian Courts System gathered for a very special meeting.
They all had paid a registration fee, took a full day out of their very busy schedules, and drove to Six Nations, not to talk, but to listen and to learn.
The conference was in preparation for the opening of an Aboriginal Persons Gladue Court in Brantford on Jan. 7.
Justice Gethan Edward, of Six Nations, has been pushing to have a Gladue Court closer to the post populous reserve in Canada, for quite some time now, and has joined with criminal lawyer Sarah Dover and others who have also joined the groundswell to make the unpleasant experience of Six Nations people caught in the Canadian Court system a little easier to bear.
Six recognized elders and experts in various areas of Six Nations society sat on a panel to discuss the various aspects of Onkwehon:we people in general, but more specifically Haudenosaunee perspectives of law and order.
Historian Rick Hill, elders Amos Key, Jan Longboat, and Reta VanEvery, as well as Lance Key offered several different perspectives on the culture and society of the Six Nations people.
Most of those in attendance who work in some fashion within the courts system admitted to knowing very little about the people, history, beliefs, culture and society of the Haudenosaunee, and were riveted by the speakers.
David Maltby is a lawyer, practicing in family law and some criminal law in Brantford. He was one of many who took home a lot of new information that will help when the Gladue Court opens, but also in his normal field of law.
“I was interested in the new court system and how it is going to function,” said Maltby. “I gained an immense amount of information today. There is very little exposure to any cultural background or Native traditions and civilization in any sense within the mainstream media or in my educational systems.”
He saw the need for this kind of post law school education even though he has been practicing in Brantford for years.
“This is a real deficit that I think almost everyone in the Justice System has,” he said. “There is a complete lack of understanding of Native values and Native civilization, language, and customs. A good number of my clients are Native, but I didn’t know much about who they really are.”
Gethan Edward spearheaded the event because he could see the need for some form of cultural education was needed amongst his peers.
He explains what the Gladue Court is all about.
“I think the idea came from the Supreme Court of Canada” he says. “In the Gladue case, the Supreme Court of Canada realized that there are really alarming statistics with respect to the over-incarceration of Aboriginals in jails. So the Supreme Court of Canada said this isn’t good and we need to do something about it.”
The Supreme Court also noticed that despite trying to create a more culturally sensitive justice system, 13 years later in another similar case involving a Native person caught like a fish out of water within the system that is completely foreign to his upbringing that much more had to be done.
“So what do you do,” says Edward. “We’re a court. We’re supposed to be taking our cue from the Supreme Court of Canada as far as to follow its precedent, and if that court is telling us there is a problem here, we had better recognize that fact and do something about it.”
That got Justice Edward to start thinking. “This court, my court, the Ontario Court of Justice services close to the most populated reserve in Canada and we don’t have anything in place to address this issue?”
He was at a conference last September and happened to go to the Gladue Court that has been operating in Toronto for the last 10 years, and sought to bring a Gladue court to Brantford.
“From that, we had a series of meetings with the Elected Council, the hereditary Chiefs, and we’ve had an ongoing committee of individuals that are stake holders and support workers like Crowns attorneys, defence councils, duty councils, probation officers, and all those individuals involved and we put this idea together,” he says. “In January we are going to start this Aboriginal Persons Court, or some other name – we are going through a name change crisis right now – and looking to having a court that would deal with Native offenders that come into court on the basis of pleading guilty to the offence and we would look at them and apply the Gladue factors which the Supreme Court set out in the Gladue case.”
The Gladue court is not a get out of jail free card, as some think. It comes in when a person has already been convicted of a crime and before the judge sentences the individual.
“The idea is first of all information,” Edward explains. “What is the individual’s background, what has caused this individual to be involved in this type of crime? I think the big problem is a lack of knowledge. So, what’s the impact of residential schools on this individual’s background? Does he have a mom, a dad, someone who he is related to who was in the residential school system and how did that impact on him or her? Was there a substance abuse issue?
“The idea is, we begin to examine what is there about this individual that would cause him to get involved in crime,” he continues. “Once we have identified that, we will try to do is bring resources in. If he has an alcohol problem, or a drug problem, let’s deal with it. If he’s got a homelessness issue, let’s deal with it. So we’re going to do stuff to help rehabilitate the individual. But at the same time, hold him accountable.”
Sarah Dover has been fighting through the court system on behalf of Six Nations clients since the reclamation of the former Douglas Creek lands where she volunteered as a cook and even worked in the first aid tent while attending law school.
“From my personal perspective,” she says. “It’s essential to have knowledge about Six Nations. If we were going to have a Gladue Court in name only, it will perpetuate the current injustice and the problems we have with racism within the criminal court system as well as the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people. That will continue unless we are truly prepared to be taking an innovative approach. And that can’t happen until all of the people involved in the court process are better educated.”
On January 7, 2014, there will be a ceremonial opening of the new Gladue court, and the first official Gladue Court date is January 14. Gladue Courts will then be conducted two days a month through February, March and April and then more will be scheduled after that.