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First Nations Courts

Canadian criminal courts are adversarial, usually seeking to punish people for crimes, and to protect other members of society by jailing offenders. The purpose of a justice system in a First Nations community is different, as it seeks out solutions that will help bring the offender, the victim, and the community together. On top of these fundamental differences, language barriers can turn even simple court appearances into confusing encounters with the justice system.  Three new Canadian courts have been set-up to deal with these cultural and language difficulties. The Gladue Court focuses on the unique circumstances of First Nations accused and offenders in Toronto. Gladue Court is no different than any other criminal court: it hears bail, remands, and sentencing matters. However, the court staff, the Prosecutor, and the Judge are specially trained in the distinct issues facing First Nations people.

Across the country in Saskatchewan, Cree Court is held in remote northern communities and hears dozens of matters each day. Language barriers in remote communities are even more pronounced than in cities, but the Cree-speaking judge, duty counsel, court clerks, and probation officers help to solve many communication problems. The result is a less foreign and more meaningful outcome for people who come before the Court.

The Peacemaking Court at the Tsuu T’ina Reserve near Calgary is a provincial court that can deal with criminal, youth, and bylaw offences committed on the reserve. The Court was developed in consultation with elders who advised on traditional methods of dispute resolution. The elders have approved Peacemaking for all offences, except sexual assault and murder. To qualify for Peacemaking, the accused has to admit responsibility for his or her crime, and the victim must agree to participate.

A Peacekeeper is then assigned to bring together the offender, the victim, their families, and other community members. There is also an elder who watches over the session, and presiding Provincial Court Judge Tony Mandamin. Peacemaking begins with a smudge or other ceremony, and then each of the participants has a chance to speak without interruption. They talk about what happened, how it affected those involved, and what should be done to address the problem. The outcome is not limited by typical sentencing principles, and results can be tailor-made to suit the crime, the victim, the offender, and the community.

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