Made-at-home justice
Aboriginal communities want to deal with their own

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 07/00) - The NWT justice system was put under the microscope as First Nations 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 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 Nations people are heard in the judicial arena because so many of our people are incarcerated," said conference co-chair Francois Paulette.

"First Nations 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 towards 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.

Fort Smith has had a Youth Justice Committee and a Community Justice Committee for several years.

If a community has a justice panel set up, the RCMP can decide if an offender should being offered the panel option. At a typical panel trial, an offender will face a committee made up of people from his community. They decide an appropriate punishment.

Only those offenders who admit guilt can be considered to stand in front of a panel. Participation in the process is voluntary.

Fort Smith's Ruth-Ann Vogt has been involved in her community's justice program for five years. She said one of the reasons it's so successful is that offenders often must meet their victims face-to-face.

"It's very important that the victim of the crime be a part of the process," said Vogt.

"Having the victim there is part of the healing process and it gives the offender the chance to see how his actions affected the people he committed the crime against."

After sitting through the many speakers at the conference, Vogt said she agrees with the conference's theme.

"It's about getting away from the formal court," said Vogt.

"It's about people dealing with their own. You can't stress enough how important that is in Northern communities."

Fort Good Hope elder Jonas Kakfwi is a member of his community's justice committee.

He said taking young offenders away from their homes and families and putting them in a correctional facility hundreds of kilometres away is not the answer.

"Put them out on the land instead of in jail. Organize workshops and make sure the RCMP and social workers know the importance of working with elders who know the people," said Kakfwi.

"Taking kids away from their homes and sending them away is something that could cause a young person to commit suicide."

He thanked the Dene Nation for setting up the conference because he feels it will generate more support within NWT's justice agencies for community-based programs.

"We're trying to work within our community to make the law look at our justice committee and to give us chances to work with our young and adult offenders," said Kakfwi.

"Almost all of the time the offences are on account of alcohol and we want to work with those offenders, particularly first-time offenders, to help them to heal. It's about showing love and forgiveness to our young people."