Hope for the future: that was the theme uniting the many speakers and dignitaries who gathered in Chisasibi to open the community’s new Justice Centre on January 24.

Chisasibi is the third community to inaugurate a Justice Centre in the past year, beginning with Mistissini last January, along with Waswanipi and Oujé-Bougoumou. The facility has a courtroom and a variety of additional features, including video-conferencing equipment, mediation support and family group-conference rooms. Along with the new facilities, a series of prevention and reintegration services are being brought in to help balance Quebec court policies with Cree culture and traditions.

Following an opening blessing from Elder Samuel Bearskin, the crowd heard various speeches, beginning with Chief Abraham Rupert, who set the tone for the day’s discussions by framing the Justice Centre as the beginning of the future of the Cree Nation.

Referring to the recent blackout that the community suffered in the cold days of early December, Chief Rupert reminded the crowd that Chisasibi pulled through.

“We come from a culture that lives with the elements,” Chief Rupert said. “The teachings from the Elders brought us through. And it’s not just about survival, it’s a way of life – how we understand life and what our purpose on earth is.”

The new Justice Centre, said Chief Rupert, is central to the responsibilities the Cree Nation takes on in the journey to self-government. But he also underlined the hope that the courtroom would one day no longer be of use, even as he recognized that that day has not yet come.

“There are times when it takes more than a slap on the wrist to put you on the right track,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get yourself to a certain point before you understand or wake up, and look at your life. This building is the purpose. It’s more than a slap on the wrist.”

Following Chief Rupert, the crowd heard speeches by Honourable Coordinating Judge for Abitibi-Témiscamingue Jocelyn Geoffroy and Chief Justice for the Courts of Quebec Elizabeth Corte. Each spoke about the importance of providing Cree communities with greater access to legal rights.

Corte admitted that her participation in the inauguration of the Mistissini Justice Facility last January was her first presence in the Cree community.

“This first contact convinced me that we had common concerns regarding the delivery of justice,” she said. “It further convinced me that cultural differences were not an obstacle to working together. Our differences do not change the fact that as human beings, we agree on the ultimate objectives of justice: harmony in families, security in communities, reparation for harm done to victims or the community, and healing and reintegration of the person accused.”

Two provincial ministers spoke as well: Minister responsible for Northern Quebec Pierre Corbeil and Minister responsible for Native Affairs Geoffrey Kelley.

Kelley affirmed that the new Justice Centres are a great improvement on the difficult history of itinerant courts in Cree communities, which in the past were often unable to offer victims and the accused basic infrastructure and needs, such as private rooms in which to meet with their lawyers.

As well, Kelley praised Donald Nicholls, Director of Justice and Correctional Services for the Grand Council of the Crees (GCC), for driving programs that help reintegrate those returning from prison back into the community through focus on Cree traditions and heritage.

Closing the speeches, Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff said, “The opening of the Justice Facility represents an important milestone for Chisasibi and the administration of justice in the Eeyou Istchee.”

He concurred with Kelley about the central role of Cree traditions in a just community.

“A properly functioning court is essential, but represents only part of what it takes to make a just and happy society,” Iserhoff said. “We call this building a justice building, but it will also be a place for Chisasibi to uphold and protect Cree values and instil them in a troubled person. To insure that community members have the tools to make healthy choices in their lives, to get back on track after unhealthy choices that they made, and to allow a healing reconciliation to occur when someone has made a mistake along his or her path, or when he or she has been the unfortunate victim of a crime.”

He ended with a prediction that soon the facility would see its proper share of Chisasibi Cree lawyers, judges and administrators, practicing law based in the Cree land and teachings.

Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Captain Karl Simard of the Eeyou Eenou Police Force praised both the building and the occasion.

“It’s a historic event, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a great building, and it’s beautiful.” He went on to praise the GCC’s Justice Department for working to reintegrate incarcerated people by developing programs to meet their needs on individual levels.

“These are the kind of programs [incarcerated people] need to be reintegrated into society in a healthy way. This building, in the future, I hope they’ll use it less to incarcerate people, but more to gather for the healing process.”

On leaving the Justice Centre, the dignitaries visited Chisasibi’s newly opened elementary school, where Kelley presented the community with a plaque commemorating the solidarity that helped them through the December blackout.

Afterward, Kelley connected community solidarity with the changes to the justice system.

Noting that Corte is interested in pursuing alternative sentencing that adopts Cree traditions, he explained, “In the long run, the rehabilitation of the people who cause these crimes is better for the community and better for society. Particularly with young offenders: you hope they’re not heading toward a life of crime. Maybe they made a mistake one night, or a series of poor judgments, but there’s no future in locking them up and throwing away the key. If the combination of Quebec experience and Cree values can come up with more positive outcomes for those people, then society in general emerges a winner.”

The dignitaries ended their visit at the Elders Centre, where they ate a traditional meal of moose stew, bannock and camp tea.

Speaking of the Elders Centre as an example, Iserhoff stressed the importance to the Cree Nation of holding onto the traditional values that were driven out of many families by residential schooling. It will take all of the community, including Elders and various community resources, to bring Cree values into the justice system, he said.

“We have the resources to help our people,” he went on. “The land, the language, our culture and values – those are the things we will pass on.”

Iserhoff was optimistic about the willingness of the Quebec government, judiciary and court personnel to adopt Cree culture and values so that the justice system serves the Cree Nation well.

“That’s what our culture is about ¬sharing, giving, nurturing and helping one another.”