Crees will be taking a serious look at a Cree justice system in January, according to Henry Mianscum, former chief of Mistissini. A justice workshop is all set to happen mid-January in Chisasibi. We spoke with Henry Mianscum, who is one of the coordinators of the workshop, to find out what is going down.

The Nation: What do you feel justice is for Crees today? Where are we at?

Henry Mianscum: I think I’m like many of the Crees in the Cree communities, where I have no idea what justice means to me. I’ve seen so much injustice done to our people, as well as the justice models that came into our communities. These were foreign to us and incarcerated our people, fined the people, but there was never anything concrete to tell me what justice was all about.

I believe it is a form of administering a corrective measure to a situation where it can bring you a healthy result, as well as heal you during the process – the healing because you’re hurt or you’ve hurt someone. You have to get healing. I can understand when someone has done a very serious crime and they’re incarcerated. Perhaps justice is being done in the sense that people who are being victimized see the offender incarcerated. Maybe that’s their form of justice that I have to understand. But, overall, we don’t seem to have a grasp on what justice means in our communities.

You’ve called what is happening now the third phase of the Cree justice project. Could you explain what the first two were, and what the third phase is?

Well, the first phase was completed in the early ’90s. It was to compile all the statistical information in the Cree communities. This was all the infractions, incidents and crimes that were occurring in the communities or done by community members. We also went into the non-Native communities where there were trials involving Crees. That was to create an information base so we can go into the justice field and be able to create some sort of justice structure to benefit the Cree communities. More and more people have realized the itinerary court is not the answer. It is a foreign and ineffective justice structure.

We also wanted to find out what were the custom laws of the Crees and how they were applied. What came out in the end was the feet that we need to take those results (and answer some questions). For example, with the police, it was carrying a firearm; do we have enough police; is the police infrastructure adequate; do we have a course; do we have a judge? It was something that really stirred the interest of the Cree people to look further into having a local or regional justice authority for the Cree people.

The second phase was to have community consultations on the findings and recommendations from the first phase. These were extensive as well. We had to use consultation with the Cree people and authorities to come up with a pilot project to effect some of the aspirations of the Cree people. That’s what phase three is all about. It is to come up with pilot projects in administering justice in the Cree communities.

So you’re looking to put Cree values in a justice system?

Yes, as you know, values have eroded over the years, and if you have no values everything becomes meaningless. Many of us realize that, as parents, we used to teach our children what those values were. Truth was one, honour another and respect was one. These don’t seem to play any great significance in our daily lives any more. I think we have come to the point where we have to develop a justice structure that will be respected, honoured and meets the needs of the Cree people. All of us, as Cree people, have to return back to those values – towards a Cree system of justice. If we don’t, then whatever system we put in place will be meaningless and will never work. Our attitude and perception is the system that is in place – the itinerary court – is not respected, and we don’t have any trust in it.

You mentioned custom law and what went on before.

We’re hoping that through the process we’re undertaking right now, we can rely on the Elders or other Cree leaders. I believe we can get a lot of valuable information and input from these people. They are very knowledgeable, and I feel we have to have some sort of expertise which our Cree people have. There’s no one concrete justice system that people have. There are multiple forms of justice, and we have to see if they are practical in today’s Cree society.

Are you talking about the worst-case scenario where you would exile someone on an island until they learned the value of human society?

I believe that banishment from the communities was something that was used for crimes, and the scale of the crime determined whether or not there would be banishment. One thing it did was teach the person you were not needed or wanted in the community for a period of time because of the wrong you did. The person took his family away from the community and for about a year there was no contact. That time alone was used as a healing process where they would have to reflect on what they did wrong. When they completed their banishment period they came back a different person.

It was something that worked very well, and I believe it could still work. It would have to be in a manner the people respected and supported. Otherwise it won’t work. It was used to heal everyone, the perpetrator as well as the victim. This person was banished from the community, but it didn’t mean that people lost contact with them. There were designated people who went in to check up on them and to bring food to them. These people were still a part of the Cree society.

What are your comments on the courts using healing circles?

I don’t know much about the healing circle other then it’s been experimented with in some of the communities and there are positive feelings about it. We’re hoping that through the justice workshop we can bring out more vital information about the healing circles that can be easily understood by the people. You have to understand it to know how it’s going to work and what its purpose is going to be. It is a relatively new experience for many. I think it will be interesting to hear it. We’re hoping to bring some people as guest speakers who could share with us more information related to the healing circle or other forms of measures for justice.

I don’t believe there is any limit to the number that we can find. But what we want to have is the one that would be most accepted and welcomed in the community. You can’t just borrow a concept that was developed by another people, and bring it into your home and hope it’ll serve.

You said Crees have some fears of the present court systems?

I don’t think it’s a matter of fearing what the system is going to do to you. Rather, it’s a fear of not administering what justice was supposed to have done. An example was a number of years ago a young man lost his life through a shooting. To the eyes of the Cree people, justice was not administered. This guy’s walking around free. As a matter of fact, after a couple of months, this guy was walking around free. That wasn’t justice in the eyes of the Cree people. That’s something many of us look at when we look at the justice system is in place at the moment.

Our people’s perception of justice is far different from that of the non-Native. A non-Native is always punish, punish, punish. Perhaps that’s the only way that society believes in to correct somebody, but the Cree people are different. We look at people and try to understand feelings as to why the person did something and also the harm or injury that was done to the community or another person. We’re very much in contact with all parties in that sense. What we try to do is bring good out of what happened, even if it was very bad. That means bringing people together to solve differences or finding a way to correct a person’s way of life or mental attitude. It’s correcting behaviour so we see a better person who will benefit Cree society rather than harm it. That is what our people are all about. We’re very forgiving.

Who can we expect to see at the workshop?

We’re looking at getting Native and non-Native experts and researchers from across Canada. They will be sharing their experiences with us on the projects we want to undertake. With their information, we’ll have an idea of what we’re getting ourselves into. One of our aims is to get a lot of Native input. We’ll have some of the Cree Elders talking about justice administered in the traditional Cree way. Just look at it; will it work in today’s society?

But the overall intent of this is to come up with a Cree justice initiative that will be supported and accepted in all of the nine Cree communities. Right now what we have is six different local justice initiatives that are endorsed by Quebec or the federal government. But these are doomed to fail as they don’t receive adequate funding, there’s insufficient training and you don’t have the personnel to carry it out. The government is always looking for something for us to do in which they look good but we’re doomed to failure. Here we are saying the itinerary court system is a farce, and yet we have an opportunity that is given to us.

If we don’t have the adequate resources, then it’s doomed to fail. So we’re hoping the justice workshop will bring revelations about what is happening in all the Cree communities and why it isn’t working why is the government only giving so much money, who is giving it and who is running it.

Our ultimate goal is to come up with the Cree justice initiative. From there we would know what our mission would be. That is to continue building it so each of the communities and the Cree Nation itself would have a justice system they can call their own.