According to Quebec Aboriginal Affairs Minister Geoff Kelly, “If you hang around politics long enough, you get to see things being built.”
He was speaking to guests at an October 13 ceremony officially opening the Nemaska Justice Centre, though it actually has been in use since November 2013. Back then, a storm prevented officials from reaching Nemaska, and it took two years before they could get the ceremony rescheduled.
Kelly has been in politics a long time, and remembers visiting Nemaska for the first time in 1992 as an attaché to then-Public Security Minister Claude Ryan for talks on what became the Eeyou Eenou Police Force. Over 23 years, he said, he has watched as justice centres went from abstract idea to a set of physical buildings in all of the Cree communities.
So has Associate Chief Justice Danielle Côté, who noted that as a result of the Justice Centres, the Court of Quebec now spends 66 days per year in Eeyou Istchee. She praised the centres for consolidating the mechanisms of justice under one roof.
“At the same time, advances like using video conferencing to treat urgent matters such as hearings for youth protection guarantee shorter delays in the delivery of justice in Cree communities,” said Côté.
Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée underlined that “justice must be accessible to all” though its administration in Cree communities should reflect “the strong tradition and culture in a community like Nemaska.”
Many guests commented on the design of the floor tiles in the lobby. The four-panel design signifies a broken shape on the outside of society being drawn into the centre of a series of circles, in order to show the principles of holistic justice, in which the community works together to heal and reintegrate the offender as well as the victim.
Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark, in his speech, agreed that a holistic approach to justice is the most likely to turn offenders into helpful community members.
“The reflection of Cree values in the justice centres was our biggest challenge,” he said, “but it’s also our greatest goal, one that began 40 years ago.” Like Côté before him, Mark noted the upcoming anniversary of the signing of the JBNQA.
Speaking to the Nation afterward, Mark noted that even as the Justice Centres are open, Cree Justice has faced a learning curve.
“The biggest challenge for the Cree Nation is to try to standardize certain things,” he observed. “The court comes into one community and listens to a case, but then they go to a different community and it’s a different bylaw. The idea would be to try to align those issues on the community level, but to try to make it fundamentally more consistent.”
Still, Mark affirmed that standardization is improving.
“One of the key things is that people believe in [the Justice Centres],” he said, reflecting that over the past two years, the gallery for court hearings in Nemaska has frequently been full of spectators. “People are starting to sense this is definitely the route we need to go. For a while, everybody wanted to see who was going to make the first move, who was going to make it work. Once the exercise was begun, they could start to see the benefits in the long run.”
According to Nemaska Deputy Chief Greg Jolly, who is also a member of the Justice Committee, the most immediate consequence has been that cases originally destined for the court system have come into the hands of Cree justice organizations. On the Justice Committee, Jolly received training in mediation from the Canadian Institute of Conflict Resolution (CICR) that he applies to cases redirected from the traditional court system.
Jolly said his job is to remain a neutral guide in the process of healing, which takes place primarily through understanding and communication. He credits the mediation training for this important skill.
“It opened my eyes to help me see clearly the issues in the community,” he said. “Sometimes I think I just saw the surface of things, but I never realized what was underneath it all – all these things that have occurred in our community. When I got into it, it really made me think more about people: their journeys, their walks. Wherever they are, there’s something in them that this tool can empower to help them find solutions within themselves. I’m only a guardian of the process. The rest is up to them in how they choose to take those steps.”
Justice Officer Teddy Wapachee says that over the past two years, he has watched the Justice Committee getting used to its role, and becoming accustomed to filing Gladue reports. These are pre-sentencing reports for Aboriginal offenders that are used take to stock of the effects of systemic issues for Aboriginal communities and people on the offender him or herself, and in some cases to recommend more traditional or restorative forms of justice.
“The justice system has been changing in the past two years,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities to work with people who wouldn’t normally be sent to us. There was training for Justice Committee people who work with us. We’re being given the opportunity to work with our own local people, rather than having them sent someplace else.”
For Teddy Wapachee, the role of Justice Officer is often a difficult one, and like Greg Jolly he credits the conflict-resolution training he received from the CICR for giving him the tools to handle a difficult job. It can get emotional, he added.
“The first time I did it, I wasn’t sure how to react,” he recounted. “But as I’ve done more and more, I’ve got a better idea what to expect. It can get very heavy at times. If I think it’s going to be like that, just in case someone breaks down – it’s good to have helpers at the ready.”
Another important part of Jolly’s work as a Justice Officer has been simply making the process clear for people caught up in the system, he noted.
“And there’s stuff that you’d think is simple, where all you need is a phone call, but people don’t always understand. Maybe you need to call about your fine or your payment so they don’t pick you up – you just need to make an arrangement to pay so much per month.”
This, too, is a central tenet of a justice system better sized to fit the needs of the Cree Nation. Cree justice handles some of the biggest issues in the world and some of the smallest.