Bringing justice home
Community support the way of the future

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 04/00) - The NWT justice system was put under the microscope this week as First Nation leaders from across the Western Arctic gathered in Yellowknife.

The three-day Dene Justice Conference, Feb. 1-3, was organized by the Dene Nation to promote and support community-based justice systems -- and to address the fact that the current system fails the Dene people in many areas.

"One of the objectives of this conference is to ensure our First Nation people are heard in the judicial arena because so many of our people are incarcerated," said conference co-chair Francois Paulette.

"First Nation people are looking for alternative ways of dealing with our people and the courts. What we're doing is working towards getting the court to adopt Indian law."

Paulette said the forum is a first step in the move towards achieving a system where First Nations run their own courts based on aboriginal culture, principles and traditional values.

While the overall justice system was examined, youth justice panels were also a main topic of discussion at the conference.

Several Northern communities, including Fort Smith and Hay River, have community and youth justice panels operating.

To illustrate how a youth justice panel works, 13 St. Patrick high school students conducted a mock trial.

The demonstration was of a 16-year-old offender guilty of breaking into a neighbour's home and stealing liquor. After hearing the charges, 12 of the offender's peers deliberated on a punishment, which territorial court Judge Robert Halifax agreed was reasonable.

The teen was sentenced to 18 months probation, three months in jail, and 60 hours of community service. The harsh sentence was delivered, the youths say, because the accused youth was a repeat offender.

"We got a better viewpoint of what the young offender goes through when judged by his peers," said student Matthew Voytilla.

"A judge often doesn't know the offender's background so his decisions can be easily dismissed. We, as a panel of his peers, see the offender every day and I think he would take our sentence more to heart."

If a community has a community justice panel set up, the RCMP can then decide if an offender warrants being offered the panel option. Only those offenders who admit guilt can be considered and taking the panel option is totally voluntary.

After participating as a panel member during the demonstration, Isaac Ayiku said he believed it was an effective system.

"Since we're all peers, the offender is more likely to take advice from us," said Ayiku.

"When we delivered our sentence, we let the offender know that what he did was wrong and that no matter what, there was no excuse."

Elaine Woodward, co-ordinator of the NWT Community Mobilization Program, spoke at the conference on preventing crime in communities.

When asked if a community justice panel could work in Yellowknife, she said "definitely."

"It doesn't matter about the size of the community. When young people see other young people in large groups dealing with crime and criminal behaviour, it's going to have a positive effect," said Woodward.

"Northern communities are here telling us that the justice committees they have are working. My sense is that community justice will gain strength in Yellowknife."