Ten days in the Stephenville Women’s Correctional Centre was an eye-opening experience for Chief Katie Rich.
Jailed for helping throw out a judge from Davis Inlet in 1993, she saw firsthand how badly the justice system treats Natives.
“I certainly got to see how our people go through the system,” she said.
Chief Rich was recently re-elected as Chief of the Mushuau Innu First Nation. She was also honoured in Ottawa with a Woman Of Courage Award from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
“When we first went in, women there knew who we were. Once we got to know these women, we got to know their stories, how the judges are, how the prosecutors are, how the system deals with these women,” said Chief Rich.
“It’s so easy for us to forget once people go through the system and go to jails.” Throwing out a judge nearly led to an RCMP assault on the community, but it also forced the province and Ottawa to set up a task force to look at justice issues. They also agreed to set up a sentencing circle with input from Elders.
“We’ve decided there’s no sense sending people out to jails because they always come home angry,” said Chief Rich. “It’s better to heal them.” Another big problem is confronting Mushuau and the Inuit of nearby Nain— the discovery of $ 1.6 billion of nickel and copper at Voisey Bay, a sacred burial site half-way between the two Labrador communities.
Helicopters and planes are landing in Nain on a daily basis on mining business. Talks broke down between the Diamond Fields mining company and the Innu and Inuit when the company refused to recognize Aboriginal title to the land. The Innu and Inuit never ceded this land in any treaty or agreement.
“It’s scary. They just might set up another town right there in the middle of Innu territory,” said Chief Rich, whose mother’s parents are buried at Voisey Bay. “They’re just drilling anywhere and everywhere. People are angry. Is it going to be another Oka? I don’t know.”