Chief Leonard George hobbled onto the stage dragging one foot in a cast. He told us that the Elders in his village said the reason he broke his ankle was the Creator wanted him to catch up on some much-needed sleep. He had just returned from another grueling round of negotiations with the governments on land-claims issues.
I was treated to some unique perspectives on justice and life while attending a conference on restorative justice and conflict resolution in Vancouver recently.
Chief George’s perspective: “The federal and provincial governments come into a room and talk for hours about what they don’t want to say. They think they are really good at it but they should meet my seven year old.”
Chief George went on further to explain his perspective on negotiations. When Aboriginals negotiate it is not about money -it is about protecting the water and air for the children to drink and breathe, not only for our children but for all people who live in the traditional territory.
Chief George s perspective on consultants: “I am not a preacher but we always overlook the best consultant, the Creator, and you know that he doesn’t charge anywhere near what other consultants charge.”
Chief George, displaying the all-too-well-known wisdom of his late grandfather Chief Dan George, saved the best for last. His perspective on human relations: “If you look back far enough we are all related, from one earth, we are all in the same canoe, you are not going anywhere without me, so pick up a paddle and help out once in a while.”
Morrie Love, the resident Moari at the conference, voyaged across the Pacific Ocean from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to share his perspectives on life and justice. Morrie Love explained to the conference that like the Aboriginals of North America, the Moari people have a strong identity with the land and people. A traditional Moari saying is: “I am no more than my past.”
For this reason, when a conflict occurs between two Moari, the community is gathered in a meeting house. First, the people gathered must talk of their ancestors as far back as necessary until they establish a connection with the issue. Then each speaker talks about anything but the issue. As each person adds to the conversation, a consensus is built by going around the issue. The principle: that people must listen before they start talking.
The Moari people also have a unique way of looking at justice. It is community oriented. For example, a woman was found to be in an adulterous relationship. The Elders determined that a punishment was in order. Therefore the husband and her family was punished. It was obvious that had her family and friends not failed in their responsibilities towards the woman, she would not have committed a wrongful act.
Rupert Ross, a Crown Attorney who worked for many years in Northern Ontario, shared his perspective of Aboriginal peoples’ view of life and justice.
Ross related the parable-like symbolism of Cree oral teachings. He told a story of how one day he had stopped to give a Cree grandmother a ride to the next town. He said, “I asked he how the blueberry harvest was this year. She answered me that there were 16 bears at the dump last night. I thought for a while, knowing she had answered my question but searching for the link. When looking through the eyes of an Aboriginal person, all things are interconnected. To this Elder, there would be few or no bears at the town dump if the blueberries were plentiful this year.”
When looking through those same Aboriginal eyes as they focus on justice, we must look at the interwoven nature of life again. Justice must focus on the way people relate to each other, not on the offence.
If a person has an abusive disposition, it is because during their youth their normal relationships involved anger and violence. Thus, putting them in a prison only introduces them to more relationships that are built on anger and violence.
However, if we teach these offenders to interact with people by sharing, openness, honesty and kindness then we focus on the way they relate to other people, which in turn can positively impact their social behaviour.
Rupert Ross imparted a final pearl of wisdom from the Navajo Peacekeeping system – that the most valuable piece of paper is a kleenex. This statement draws attention to the heart of the traditional Aboriginal justice system where healing is the most important component for the offender, victim, community and nation as a whole.
A final Aboriginal perspective from the conference came from Leah George-Wilson. She told of an archeologist who, after hearing the news of evidence that Aboriginals occupied North America thousands of years before scientists originally thought, approached her and said: “This must make you happy.”
“I replied: ‘It does not, it only reaffirms your value system, we [Aboriginals] already knew that we have been here since time out of mind.’” It further illustrates that Native culture has its unique perspectives on existence that are not dependent on reaffirmation by science or other cultures. We are no more or less than our past.