It was a cold day but that didn’t stop people for showing up for the official opening of the Mistissini Justice Building on January 31.
A proud Justice Director Donald Nicholls led people on a tour. Though the facility has the usual trappings of a courthouse complete with holding cells and offices for lawyers, prosecutors and judges, it has so much more. There’s a mediation room, video access so witnesses from elsewhere can give their testimony no matter which community they are in and staff offices for paying fines and to manage justice programs geared to the Cree population.
Nicholls welcomed everyone to the facility and turned the floor over to a proud Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio. He said that the Justice building was a “necessary element in a democratic society where peace and order are the absolute rule.”
Shecapio sees the Justice centre as more than just a courthouse but a place where people will have a chance to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the Mistissini community. He thanked the Grand Council and the staff for making this possible.
The Quebec Minister for Native Affairs Pierre Corbeil said he was glad to return to Mistissini. He was there last summer for the inter-band games where he was impressed with the pride and energy of the youth participating in the games.
Corbeil commended the Crees on the new building and said he looks forward to seeing such facilities in all the Cree communities. “The initiative taken by Cree authorities in this respect is a clear demonstration of the Cree Nation’s desire to give importance to the place of justice in their society.”
He added, “The facility will permit different points-of-view in a spirit of respect.” Corbeil said he feels there is an opportunity for positive social changes that will lead to a better quality of life for the Cree people.
The next speaker was a surprise in many ways. The Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec, the Honourable François Rolland actually took time off from his heavy schedule to attend the opening.
Rolland said, “It is an honour and a pleasure for me to speak here today. This is my first visit to Mistissini and I am most impressed by your community and by the facilities that have been built here over the past years. You have every reason to be proud. We are fortunate to live in a society in which the rule of law prevails. This means that all are subject to the law and all are equal before the law.”
He added that the Justice building was an important part of having access to justice. “Effective, accessible and impartial justice is the keystone of economic development and good governance.” He talked about the fact the Cree felt it was important enough to have a whole chapter on justice in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Later, the Paix des braves Agreement provided for the construction of justice facilities and this was important for the Crees.
“It is one thing to preach that individuals must have access to the justice system, but how effective can that access be if the justice facilities are physically inaccessible? The right to obtain legal representation and commence a claim can be meaningless if no facilities are available to allow the claim to be brought before the court in a timely and effective fashion,” said Rolland.
He finished with a promise. “I am convinced that these new justice facilities will greatly improve the services provided by the judicial system to the Cree people and will help promote social justice within your communities.
“I, therefore, commit to you today to undertake discussions with the Government of Quebec about ways to ensure an even greater presence of the Superior Court of Quebec in Cree communities. And, within my own powers, I will explore all reasonable steps to promote improved access to justice for northern peoples.”
Next up was another chief justice. This time is was Chief Justice Elizabeth Corte of the Court of Quebec. She said, “The inauguration of the justice facility outlines in the most visible way the accomplishments that have taken place since the signing of the JBNQA in November 1975.”
Corte said, “The presence of the Court of Quebec, occasional at the beginning, has become regular and frequent.” This has led to ongoing training for judges to better deliver a justice that takes into account Cree values and customs.
“The Court has a permanent committee on justice issues in Native communities,” she added saying the judges work hard and are always aware when making decisions that they respect legal principles while respecting the culture, values and customs of the Cree person before them.
A concern of Corte was the many attempts to set up justice committees in the Cree communities. She said these could help and provide guidance to the court sessions. She said it was unfortunate that many haven’t survived over the years and she hoped to see them renewed on a permanent basis. Nicholls said they have already done so in eight of the communities so far as part of the Cree Justice system.
Corte ended with an assurance that “the Court of Quebec will continue to accompany the First Cree Nations in its quest for a justice that is in harmony with Cree values, fundamental rights and respect of the law.”
Having the final say was Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, who is no stranger to justice and the Crees. When he was chief of Mistissini he implemented the first policing agreement. Later as Grand Chief in the 1990s, the Grand Council/CRA hosted a Policing and Justice Conference in Mistissini.
Coon Come said, “Section 18 of the James Bay Agreement, dealing with the administration of justice for the Crees, contains important guarantees and this section is founded on two fundamental principles: (1) Cree participation in the administration of justice; and (2) the reconciliation between Aboriginal values and the Anglo-Canadian model and laws. As a whole, Section 18 lays the foundation for a unique Cree-Quebec judicial system which takes elements from both the Cree and the Quebec systems and traditions.”
He said it represents a bridge between Cree and Quebec cultures and communities. “The unique Cree-Quebec judicial system is a dynamic and ever-evolving system which provides, over time, for the Crees to assume more responsibilities for the administration of justice in their communities, and perhaps, for new Cree institutions to be established and recognized in the future.”
Coon Come pointed out that while in 1975 it was agreed that an itinerant court would travel periodically to the communities, 35 years later the needs were different. He said the Cree population has grown threefold, more by-laws have been passed and more people rely on the courts to resolve matters.
Coon Come said the building would house the local justice committee as well as having a mediation and family conferencing room. He pointed out there would be programs to meet the needs of the people whether they are seeking healthier choices or returning to the community.
He said, “Justice cannot be about just responding, it must be about building values understanding and a sense of security in communities.”
Coon Come added, “As we go forward, we also hope that more Crees will be recruited, trained and hired to assume positions in connection with the administration of justice in their communities, including as justices of the peace. Hopefully one day, in a not-too-distant future, Crees will fill this courtroom, not just as defendants, but as stenographers, legal clerks, attorneys and as judges.”
Nicholls said that the facilities are for both systems of justice to come together to provide the best possible delivery of services, programs and resources for the communities they are in. The system of justice that will be delivered there will include the provincial courts, local justice committees, and prevention, diversion and reintegration programs, all seeking to uphold principles of fairness, impartiality, integrity and a respect for the rights of the people it seeks to serve.