Justice used to be done very differently in the Cree Nation.

As Public Health Officer Charles Esau explained over the traditional lunch honouring the opening of the Waskaganish Justice Centre, the sixth such facility to open in a Cree Nation community, “The way they used to do things was when somebody did wrong, there was a council of older people that discussed with him what he did. When he admitted it, he came up with a solution of how he was going to pay for the wrongdoing. At that time, there were no cars, no trucks, nothing. What he did was burn grass. When they burned the grass around the small village, it would kill the mosquitoes. That was a job that somebody had to do, and he did it voluntarily. That’s an example of how someone can pay back the community.”

This recollection of the traditional forms of Cree justice was reflected in the speeches of all the dignitaries gathered for the occasion, which included Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, Waskaganish Chief Gordon Blackned, and Judges Jocelyn Geoffroy, Robert Mainville and André Perreault. Each spoke about the importance of making Cree traditions, values and customs central to the pursuit of justice in the Cree Nation.

Also present was Gertie Murdoch, who will assume the role of chairperson of the Regional Justice Committee in June. In 1980, Murdoch became the first Cree Justice of the Peace, a position she held until a 2004 Supreme Court ruling decided that Justices of the Peace must be lawyers with 10 years of experience – a requirement she and the Justice Committee are appealing to the minister to change.

“I think all the Native people were wiped out then,” said Murdoch of the 2004 ruling. “Apparently there were only two Justices of the Peace in Kahnawake left. Because of their dual citizenship, they couldn’t dismiss them. If they die, that’s it.”

The desire to see more and more Crees involved in the administration of justice was on everyone’s minds. Along with the opening of the new building comes the demand for the facility to be filled with members of the community it serves.

Blackned said, “I see it as an opportunity for younger people to look at careers within it – the clerks, corrections officers, maybe even lawyers, and one day the judges. We’ve got to look to the future and start encouraging the youth to make use of that building for our benefit, and for the benefit of the members of the community. It’s not just for court cases related to infractions: it’s for people to go to, to seek information about a certain law, their rights, how they can seek assistance from people within that building, and for seeking justice when they feel that their rights have been infringed upon.”

When it comes to making Cree values and tradition central to justice, said Murdoch, “The Regional Justice Committee pushes hard. We have to have culture included. I think we’re strong in saying programs have to be related to language and culture. I think it will happen, I really do. If they reinstate the justices of the peace, I see it rooting from there. Eventually, our goal is to see Cree judges and Cree lawyers and everybody Cree in the courtroom. That’s a long-term goal, and I think we’ll build as we go along.”

Murdoch added that the committee has already been looking at Circle Sentencing, the restorative justice process of allowing an admitted wrongdoer to face and be judged by the person he or she harmed.

Blackned looks forward to the Justice Centre stepping up the activity of the Restorative Justice Committee, which is tasked with developing traditional justice approaches drawn from Cree tradition.

“There hasn’t been much activity on the part of that committee to deter people from getting involved in incidents that are normally tried in the itinerant court,” Blackned said. “We’ve got to get moving on that. Now that we’ve got a building there, that would be home to this committee, and sitting there, in that facility, hopefully it’ll give them some ideas about how to mediate some of the problems people encounter.”

After the day’s ceremonies, as guests and dignitaries gathered at the Kanio Kashee Lodge to eat moose, beaver and goose with members of the community, Esau reflected that the most important element of a strong system of Cree justice was reaching those who have done wrong in the way that generations of the past were able to do.

“I think when people start to realize and admit that what they did was wrong,” he said, “then that’s beneficial to their own healing and their reconciliation with the family, the individual or the community.”