Professional speaker Rick Osborne

There is no doubt that in recent years in the Cree communities, gang and youth violence have been on the minds of many. Between general assemblies that have focussed entirely on wayward youth conduct and a rise in gang activity, there was no better time for the Crees to hold a Justice Symposium.

From January 27-29, the Cree Regional Authority and the Grand Council hosted the event in Mistissini and brought together representatives from the Youth Council, the Elders Council, the Health Board, the School Board and from all nine communities.

According to Donald Nicholls, the CRA’s interim Justice Minister, this was the first time since 1998 that the Grand Council held a Justice Symposium and the second time in the history of the GCC that this kind of event was held. Though the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement had provisions within it that would see the formation of a Cree Police Force, it was not until May 2007 that the Crees signed a justice agreement in Quebec guaranteeing funds for the implementation of this.

With the emergence of a Cree Police Force, getting direct input from each of the nine communities was essential in the development of the regional police force as each community has its own issues.

Not only were members from all nine communities in attendance at the symposium so were various guest speakers and justice consultants with expertise in crime prevention and crime-and-victimization issues in Aboriginal communities.

According to Michael C. Chettleburgh, a writer, evaluator, professional speaker and crime-prevention strategist from the Astwood Strategies Corporation who is currently working in consultation to develop a crime-prevention strategy with the Crees, the event itself was a first step.

“The purpose of the symposium was to start a dialogue and give each community the opportunity to share their thoughts and issues as well as for participants to get a better sense of what we are doing from a crime-prevention perspective,” said Chettleburgh.

Having worked on crime prevention in various Aboriginal communities across Canada, Chettleburgh will be working with the Crees over the next few years to ensure that the Crees don’t make the mistakes that other jurisdictions have made in the past.

From Chettleburgh’s perspective, communities that have intense crime problems often react by putting more police on the streets or getting tough on crime and employing mandatory minimum sentences. Unfortunately these kinds of strategies often don’t actually reduce crime.

“The communities that best deal with crime-and-victimization issues employ a balanced approach where you have an intelligent approach to policing. You help communities heal from the inside out and you deal with the root causes as to why youth and adults act in criminal ways,” said Chettleburgh.

Coming from an area of expertise, Chettleburgh’s approach to dealing with crime is multi-faceted and employs the participation of community members from all walks of life and traditional customs. The JBQNA gave the Crees the ability to make changes to criminal code of Canada within their own jurisdiction, and this allows for Cree customs and culturally relevant programs to be developed within the justice file.

At the Justice Symposium, not only were individual communities able to present what crime issues were most pressing for them, it was also an opportunity for each of the nine to select one particular area of program development to champion within their home community. Chettleburgh’s strategy was broken down into nine separate agendas so that each community could choose one and work on it. The agendas themselves ranged from community engagement, youth centres to restorative justice.

The idea is to begin implementing model programs in each of the nine jurisdictions. For example, one community will be tasked with leading the development of the best practices of the restorative justice program. “Once they develop and document the program, evaluate it and get the kinks out of it, then we take that program and implement it in the other eight communities,” explained Chettleburgh.

Another issue that was discussed at the Justice Symposium was the creation of a crime-prevention council that will feature local representation. This way the justice system will have cultural relevance, as it will be led by the individual stakeholders in each community.

“The idea is, within two to three years, we should have a lot of the infrastructure in place to deal with justice issues. This would include a regionalized police service, vibrant youth centres, an expanded community economic agenda, and a world-class restorative justice program that can be used by any of the communities that don’t want to use a traditional corrections system,” said Chettleburgh.

In the long term, not only will more services such as victim’s assistance and legal aid be available on a consistent basis within all nine communities but the traditional path to healing and reconciliation will be prevalent within the system. This will be seen within restorative-justice approaches, victim-offender mediation and healing circles.

According to Nicholls, each community will also have its own justice centre. Each centre will not only feature a round court-room, something more congruent with the holistic approach to justice, it will also feature a multitude of meditation rooms and other offices to offer services to the friends and families of the victims and perpetrators.

“We want it to be a place where mediation, rehabilitation and reintegration can occur because this is part of the justice system. This is why the Department of Justice and Corrections is going to be reintegrating people into the community,” said Nicholls.

At the end of the symposium, participants were surveyed to ensure that their values would be reflected within the system. Nicholls said one of the ideas that was consistently expressed was that the system should focus on the act and not the individual.

“If a wrongful act is done, it is a bad act and we don’t want it. But we can’t say the same about the person. We want to help people and educate them. We have to tell them that the act is not acceptable but that they are still acceptable,” said Nicholls.

Nicholls was enthusiastic about the crime-prevention strategies that were discussed at the symposium, particularly those for youth. One important aspect of Chettleburgh’s “nine agendas” is the reinvigoration of community activities which is a proven means of preventing crime.

“Before our communities started having these annual gatherings over Christmas with feasts and events, there used to be a high level of calls over the holidays. But after the start of these community activities, the numbers of calls have dropped,” said Nicholls.

The Cree communities have been looking at Police Athletic League system in the U.S. as something they may want to adopt for themselves because of its effectiveness in keeping youth positively engaged.

To give the symposium participants a perspective on what it is like for criminals to go through the justice system and through rehabilitation, a special guest speaker was brought in.

Rick Osborne is a professional speaker and the author of the soon-to-be-released book, White Noise: A Journey through Addiction, Crime and Prison. He also spent the bulk of his life in prison from 1978-2002. Not only did Osborne speak at the Justice Symposium, he also took the time to address the community’s youth at the local schools.

Osborne said that he sees himself as an anomaly because he went from being a good kid to a drug addict to a street thug and then on to gang violence. What makes him different is that though he experienced all of this and became a self-described monster, he was able to turn his life around and become a productive member of society.

“When I talk to kids I tell them that they are good people and they need to hold that belief because when they get lost it can pull them back afterwards. In my case, when I talk to the communities I tell them that they have to instill positive values in the kids. Even if you lose the kids for a period of time, they will have that base and that compass so that they can get back afterwards,” said Osborne.

Having come from a good home with loving parents, Osborne described how throughout his youth he fell victim to predators who got him involved with drugs and then later on with sexual assault. The experiences instilled anger and hatred within him which later led him down a path of crime.

From Osborne’s perspective, in order to keep youth from becoming involved in criminal activity, such as drugs or gang violence, keeping them ignorant of it is a recipe for disaster.

“We have to empower them and make them resilient so that they know when the pitch comes, there is no shine to it and they will know what it is,” said Osborne.

Osborne wants to return to Mistissini to work with the community’s youth later this year and is working on a proposal with the Grand Council. As a community activity, Osborne would like to share his love of motorcycles with Mistissini’s youth and bring up a custom Harley Davidson for the kids to work on together.

Though the Cree Justice System is only in its beginnings, the Justice Symposium served as a positive first step to establish what needs to happen and how. With the funding in place and an infrastructure in development, the seeds of positive change within the Cree Nation have already begun to take root.