Justice may soon be back in Cree hands in Mistissini. After three years of study of how the justice system has failed Crees, Mistissini is well on its way to creating a parallel, Cree-run system of dealing with crime.

“We want to revert back to how people used to render decisions on judicial matters,” says Mistissini Chief Henry Mianscum. “It was all internal justice. Now we just have the itinerant court, which goes in and out without enough time to make the right decisions.”

Early this year, a 21-person committee started looking at ways to put Cree values back into the justice system. The band council is also expected to create an Elders’ Circle to discuss ways of dealing with crime in a more Cree way at the next band meeting at the end of March.

The band is also thinking about setting up a dispute-resolution mechanism for less serious crimes not involving violence. The idea is to bring together the victim and perpetrator of the crime to create dialogue and healing, said Mianscum. As for violent crimes like murder, Mianscum said Crees want such crimes to be taken much more seriously by provincial authorities. “For the judicial system, it’s just a contest between lawyers. They overlook the crime itself. In our ways, life is very precious. If you take it, there must be a way to pay for it.”

Mianscum emphasized the need for a “holistic” way to deal with crime. “The idea is not to continuously punish people, but to bring them back into the mainstream of community life so they can make something of themselves. Now they are just fined, which doesn’t solve anything.”

The efforts underway in Mistissini come at the end of a three-year review of justice and policing in the Cree Territory kicked off by the Cree Regional Authority. The review uncovered numerous problems, but change has been slow, leading some Cree communities to take matters into their own hands by seeking to create parallel structures for dealing with crime.

Stalling by the province also led Crees to suspend their participation last fall on a joint Cree-Quebec committee that was supposed to study policing problems. Mianscum said the committee “was going nowhere.” He was skeptical of current provincial efforts to review some of the Cree complaints about the justice system. “That’s just a patchwork solution. We’re trying to get directly involved in justice.”

Reform efforts similar to Mistissini’s are also underway in Nemaska, Waskaganish and Ouje-Bougoumou. For Mistissini, the issue is especially emotional because of the murder in May 1992 of a 19-year-old Mistissini Cree, Richard Shecapio. Mistissini residents are outraged over the light sentence given to Shecapio’s killer by Quebec’s itinerant court—two years less a day.