The Indigenous peoples court at the Ottawa courthouse launched in late summer 2017. (Deborah MacAskill /CBC ) Twice a week, at the beginning of each session of the Indigenous peoples court, Greg Meekis lights sage in an abalone shell and wafts it through the courtroom with two eagle feathers.
He moves it around the judge’s bench, the prisoner’s box, the lawyers and the clerks.
Then Meekis, the bail supervisor with the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, gives a nod and court begins.
It’s been six months since this scene started playing out in Ottawa courtrooms.
Smudging is just one of the differences that was introduced when the specialized court was brought in on Sept. 11, 2017 .
The court doesn’t handle trials, but does plea and bail hearings, adjournments and sentencings.
Its goal is to incarcerate fewer Indigenous people and instead have them deal with the issues that brought them to court in the first place through diversion programs.
Indigenous support workers like Meekis are right there in the court, offering context to the justice and lawyers then following through, keeping the person on track.
The accused is also given more opportunity to speak and family members can also weigh in, setting a different tone. ‘It made me feel more confortable’
For people like 30-year-old Shaun Michael, that tone was a welcome change.
Michael is originally from Nunavut, but now lives in Ottawa.
He has, by his own description,"a big bad record" with most of his charges relating to stealing alcohol and getting in fights.
Last November, he appeared before the court and said he noticed the difference right away.
"It made me feel more comfortable. In the beginning we got to smudge and that can clear our spirit," he said.
"Our workers are there, our Indigenous workers. It’s a bit [more] lenient sentencing."
The court hands out different sentences than the regular court would give to a non-Indigenous offender for the same crime.That sentencing could be a hearing circle, serving in the community, volunteering, or being mandated to take programs.In Shaun’s case it was weekly bail check-ins, addictions counselling and an Inuit healing program. No get out of jail free card However, "lenient" isn’t a word Meeks would use to describe the kinds of sentences the court hands out. He believes sometimes it would be easier for people to just go to jail and do their time."[The court] requires a person to look inside themselves and say ‘All right, I’m ready to deal with this.’ That’s not easy at all," he said.The presiding justice agrees."This is not a get out of jail free card," said Célynne Dorval."Being forced to deal with your issues, to be able to move forward is not an easy task. I am sure that most offenders would say it would be easier to do some time in jail." Justice Célynne Dorval doesn’t believe staying out of jail means a soft sentence. (Judy Trinh/CBC) But how much the court is really paying off will really only be known in the long term.According to Justice Dorval they need to wait and see how many people going through the court wind up in front of the judge again on new charges.One that hasn’t been back is Shaun Michael: according to court records he hasn’t returned since his appearance back in November.He now has plans to train as a chef and to volunteer helping out other Indigenous people.So far, Dorval says 50 people have pleaded guilty, there have been 30 bail hearings and hundreds of appearances.However, a single charge may require more than one appearance by the same person before their case is dealt with, so it isn’t really giving a clear […]
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