Ceremony to be held marking grand opening of Nova Scotia Indigenous court

WAGMATCOOK, NS — A ceremony was held Thursday marking the grand opening of a unique court on Nova Scotia’s Wagmatcook First Nation.

The Nova Scotia Judiciary said the court in Cape Breton is the first of its kind in the province and among only a few in the country that incorporates Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs through its programs, as well as housing a provincial court and Supreme Court family division.

Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald and Wagmatcook Chief Norman Bernard were expected to speak at the event —which fell on National Indigenous Peoples Day — and Premier Stephen McNeil is also expected to attend.

The judiciary said the creation of the court is in line with a 1989 Marshall Inquiry recommendation calling for more provincial court sittings on Nova Scotia reserves, as well as calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

The Wagmatcook courthouse inside the Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre offers programs including a Gladue court, which refers to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that requires courts to take Aboriginal circumstances into account when handing down a sentence.

It also offers a healing and wellness court, dedicated to Indigenous offenders who plead guilty or accept responsibility for their actions and are at a high risk to reoffend.

“This court program will look at the underlying factors that contribute to the person coming into conflict with the law,” the judiciary said on its website.

“The sentencing process is delayed approximately 12 to 24 months to allow time for the offender to proceed through this healing plan.”

Judge Laurie Halfpenny-MacQuarrie, the presiding judge at the new court who was involved in its creation from the beginning, said that in 2015 she became fed up with issuing non-appearance arrest warrants for people from the Wagmatcook area who were forced to travel to Port Hawkesbury for proceedings _ an hour’s drive away.

She said she met with local Aboriginal chiefs in April 2016 to discuss solutions for the issue, and the idea for the Wagmatcook First Nation courthouse was born.

“We discussed what that would look like, and it would be a court that’s philosophy would be Indigenous law, and applying that here at a local level,” said Halfpenny-MacQuarrie in an interview before the ceremony Thursday.

Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said they wanted to ensure the court would be a full-service legal centre in the community, with spaces for legal aid, Crown attorneys, interview rooms and holding cells, as well as housing the Indigenous legal programs.

“That’s what makes this court unique,” she said.

The judiciary said the court model was developed in close consultation with the First Nations community.

“It will be guided and supported by Aboriginal justice concepts, procedures and resources, which will help ensure it is meeting the individualized needs of Indigenous people coming before the court,” the website said.

The design of the court is also unique. The bench is shaped like a circle _ a symbol in the Indigenous community representing the Aboriginal medicine wheel and the court’s restorative justice approach.

The court will sit once a week on Wednesdays.

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