- Category: news
- Created: Wednesday, 09 October 2013 13:50
- Published: Wednesday, 09 October 2013 13:50
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Cowichan Valley Citizen
Members of Vancouver Island's First Nations communities now have options when it comes to their dealings with the B.C. justice system.
They can choose either to go through the provincial courts or through First Nations court.
Since May, a First Nations court based on the successful New Westminster model has been operating in Cowichan.
Cowichan Tribes Community Justice Coordinator Calvin Swustus said the idea of bringing the specialized court to Cowichan was broached in 2008 and multiple trips to New Westminster were made by the band's justice committee to see it in action.
"This court is unique compared to the contemporary Provincial Court," Swustus said. "It does have a First Nations judge, a First Nations Crown counsel, and duty counsel."
Aboriginals who are pleading guilty, or have been found guilty of a criminal offence may be eligible to have their case transferred to First Nations court.
"The First Nations court has been developed to provide a forum for Aboriginal peoples involved with the criminal justice system in a culturally based setting that takes a holistic and restorative healing approach to sentencing," said Mabel Peter (Tth'utsimulwut), a spokeswoman for the First Nations Court Committee.
Cowichan's court sits once a month and is one of just three in the province (the third is in Kamloops). It deals with provincial court matters including bail hearings, sentencing hearings and child protection matters.
"It's not community driven or judiciary driven, it's a collaborative effort on both parts," Peter explained. "It's a lot more cooperative."
She said not every Aboriginal has to attend First Nations court but for the ones that do, they can expect a lot more involvement throughout their sentence.
An elders' advisory panel has been selected based on the advice of local chiefs. That group has been trained in the court system but they also bring with them the knowledge of their traditions and cultural practices. "A lot of our people look to the elders for their wisdom and their teachings," Peter said.
Elders then help the individual being sentenced along the way, "rather than ship them off to probation [officers] that have, you know, usually 200 or 300 clients," Peter said.
Swustus said 13 First Nations elders from Cowichan as well as neighbouring Aboriginal communities have been trained.
"These elders were chosen due to their knowledge of the community, traditions and culture, and they assist the presiding judge render healing (probation) orders," he said.
A healing plan is developed in which the offender is asked to take responsibility for their actions, work on addressing underlying issues and to repair the harm they've done.
"In this process the client (offender) is now accountable to the community through the elders," Swustus explained. "The client then is required to return to court each month to provide an update review on what the person has done in regards to their plan."
Swustus said the hope is that through the program, offenders will be guided in the right direction rather than going back into society and committing crimes again.
The official opening of Cowichan's First Nations court is set for 9 a.m. on Oct. 11 at the Quw'utsun Cultural Centre.