One of my favourite aspects of being Aboriginal policy counsel for Legal Aid Ontario is that I get to travel the province to speak with people about their experiences with LAO services. Recently I was able to attend the NAN-Wide Justice Summit that took place in Thunder Bay from November 19-21, 2013.
The purpose of the Summit was to bring together the legal community, First Nation communities, and organizations to listen, learn, and talk about the longstanding problems in the justice system that disproportionately affect Aboriginal peoples. LAO chair John McCamus’ speech from the Summit provides additional perspective.
One important and unique aspect to note about the Summit was the fact that there was a dialogue between all of the participants of a kind that I have never seen before. You had all together in one room a mix of: judges, justices of the peace, defense counsel, crown attorneys, police, Chiefs and Council members, elders, Aboriginal organizations, and government representatives that were engaged in addressing the inherent problems in the current justice system.
There was a recognition that two different streams of justice exist – the Euro-Canadian justice system that was imposed on Aboriginal peoples during colonization, and the traditional and longstanding Aboriginal approach of restorative justice.
Unfortunately, rarely do they intersect, and rarely is the Aboriginal approach recognized as a bona fide way to address matters within the criminal, family, and child protection context.
The Summit was an opportunity to showcase some of the restorative justice programs that are currently being offered in some of the Northern communities, and at NAN-Legal. There were informative presentations, panel discussions, and participatory workshops that highlighted the benefits of the restorative approach.
However, one of the most powerful examples of how the restorative approach actually addresses and deals with the underlying issues that may drive a person to become entangled in the justice system was when Brenda Batisse addressed the room and told her story.
Brenda is a young First Nation woman from Kirkland Lake, who in 2008 was sentenced to five years imprisonment for taking a newborn baby from the Sudbury hospital. This was a very high-profile case and many of the participants in the room had heard about the case but never the whole story from Brenda herself.
Brenda shared her story of how one act of abuse in her childhood changed the rest of her life. She shared her experiences of growing up in an extremely abusive home and the path that led her to committing what she framed as a terrible crime. Brenda told us how, even after she was released from prison, she was broken and struggled everyday.
However, the one thing that changed Brenda was when the opportunity to engage in a restorative justice circle facilitated by NAN Legal with the individual who had committed the first act of abuse against her.
Brenda told us how participating in the circle allowed her for the first time to confront her abuser, address the cycle of trauma, and to feel at peace with herself. She told us how powerful the restorative process was and how it has changed her life. This is just one of the examples of how the restorative approach was highlighted over the week.
At the end of the week all of the participants were involved in drafting and agreeing to the terms of reference for moving forward with action towards a justice system that works for the Aboriginal community. There was a recognition that everyone needs to work together and that no one system can work for all.
I am looking forward to bringing back the knowledge, stories, ideas, and practices to my work with LAO and to keep moving the Aboriginal Justice Strategy forward.