For the crowd that gathered for the official opening of the Wemindji Justice Centre on Friday, February 17, there were moments of laughter to balance against the new building’s serious purpose.

Following a speech by Geoffrey Kelley, Quebec Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark gave a speech while accompanied by his daughter Anna, a toddler who circled him at the microphone until he picked her up and held her – to the obvious delight of the audience – as he finished his address.

The huge crowd, which filled all available seats and spilled out into the lobby, was forced to wait for the delayed plane carrying Associate Chief Justice Danielle Coté, Superior Court of Quebec Judge Jocelyn Geoffroy and Coordinating Judge for the Court of Quebec Daniel Bédard.

When they finally arrived, Don Nicholls, Director of Justice and Correctional Services for the Grand Council of the Crees, quipped, “We’ve all heard of ‘government time’ and ‘Indian time.’ This morning, we’ve learned that ‘judges’ time’ can also be a little off.”

Later, in the day’s final speech, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come joked (in Cree) that he slept very well the previous night at Wemindji’s Maquatua Inn, but would have slept better with a woman beside him.

“I’ve been married for 35 years,” he said to the laughter of the room, “and it is difficult to sleep alone.”

At a more serious moment in Coon Come’s speech, however, he underlined the importance of the active participation of Cree communities in the justice system so that they may shape it in the image of their cultures and traditions. This was a message that had been reiterated by all speakers, including Coté and Geoffroy, who advised that there could be no proper administration of justice in Cree territories until the justice system properly understood and reflected the needs and background of Cree communities.

“Justice is a basic right,” said Geoffroy in his speech, “and the efforts of the Cree Nation to implement these new justice facilities in its territory are of great significance.” He added that the first civil case involving Wemindji Cree people will be moved from Amos to the new Justice Centre to heard at the end of 2012.

“Justice, and the administration of justice, must reflect that we are different, and equal,” said Coté. “One way of demonstrating our differences is through the intervention of justice committees. In the coming months, the participation of justice committees in the delivery of justice should be noticeable. Not only in the decision made by the judge, but also in the representation made by the crown lawyers, and the lawyers representing a Cree person.”

Coté reiterated that the goal of coordinating between the provincial justice system and the Cree justice committees is to achieve a set of policies and procedures that are the same for all Cree populations.

“Justice in Cree communities should be in harmony with Cree cultures and values,” she said. “I do not mean that presently justice is not in harmony with Cree cultures and values – I mean that it is not sufficiently visible even if always present.”

When he addressed the room, Coon Come first gave an extended speech in Cree, and then spoke at length in English, both repeating some points and ad-libbing new ideas. In both of his speeches, Coon Come made sure to present the opening of the Justice Centre within the context of the demands of the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA).

“Thirty-seven years ago,” he said, “the leaders of the day contemplated that one day we’d have our own police force, that one day the Indian Act would not be applied to us. That we would find the mechanism and regimes in which we could incorporate and codify traditional customs, beliefs and values, and with that we could replace the Indian Act, because we felt the Indian Act was not a part of us.”

Celebrating the successful inauguration of the Eeyou Istchee Police Force last April, the Grand Chief recognized that with Cree order there must come Cree law.

“And there was a time when our Elders and our leaders felt that, what was promised to them, they wanted to see it in their lifetime,” he said. “They wanted to be able to walk into a building, to touch it, to see it. Part of that dream is now fulfilled. To be able to walk into this justice building, to allow a system that we have adopted, in which we hope to incorporate our own values, our own customs and our traditions, in developing the programs. God forbid that this be a place where our young people are taken away, but I know we’re working on programs to help our young people and those who break the law, to allow them to be adapted back into society.”

Coon Come cautioned that, in pursuing justice, “We have a lot to learn. We cannot just copy the system of how things are done by white people. We should include the skills and the knowledge of Cree people. We should use the Cree way of thinking when we run the justice system. We will own this – and not just borrow it from the south.”

Acknowledging the presence in the room of some of those who have been involved in the struggles for Cree self-government, Coon Come recognized Wemindji Elders John Mark and Fred Blackned, along with former Wemindji Chief Reggie Mark.

These were, he said, “the people from your community who had to go down to Montreal to be able to defend and fight for Aboriginal rights, questions dealing with title, and questions of extinguishment – protecting our way of life.”

The Coon Come underlined the distance of travel this demanded of them, saying, “I hope we don’t come to that day where we’re fighting in court – Minister Kelley,” he smiled and nodded at the minister, to some laughter from the courtroom. “But if that happened, if we could have a hearing in our own community, that would be historical.”

Speaking afterward, Chief Rodney Mark said he appreciates the grand significance of the events that Coon Come was discussing, but cautioned that the process of bringing Cree-centred justice to the Cree Nation is a long one. Mark was more concerned with organizing the Wemindji Justice Committee and implementing bylaw enforcement than with the arc of Cree history.

“That’s something we need to look at in a 20-year timeframe,” he said. “It’s about working in collaboration with the Health Board, the Cree School Board. A lot of the programs that we’re trying to implement right now are crime-prevention programmes, but they’re not called that. You have to look at prevention, intervention and rehabilitation – how do we address all those things?”

Mark is optimistic about the possibilities, however.

“It’s a small community, so we can really focus on these things,” he says. “We’d rather take our time [organizing the justice committee] in order to have the right people, people who are committed, so the quality is going to be delivered.”