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Indigenous court celebrates a year of healing

One of the success stories was on hand when the first anniversary of a legal proceeding aimed at reducing the number of indigenous people revolving through the criminal justice system was celebrated on Tuesday.
Wesley Mitchell and Christina Draegen, whoc is draped in one of the blankets given to those who complete their Indigenous Court healing plans, outside the Prince George courthouse.

One of the success stories was on hand when the first anniversary of a legal proceeding aimed at reducing the number of indigenous people revolving through the criminal justice system was celebrated on Tuesday.

During a midday ceremony, Wesley Mitchell performed a traditional Wet'suwet'en drumming song to give thanks for the launch of the Prince George Indigenous Court. Mitchell credits the process for making sure he has stayed out of trouble after a few too many brushes with the law.

Mitchell had pleaded guilty to breaching a recognizance but instead of adding the offence to his criminal record, a judge and a trio of elders saw fit to order him to report back on the steps he was taking towards personal improvement.

"What things I was putting into place to continue on the right road," Mitchell said.

Many of those steps were things he had already been pursuing - volunteering with various groups like the Prince George Spruce Kings, the Khast'an drummers, attending events at the Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre and taking counselling and going through the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

Six months later, Mitchell became a "graduate" and bestowed with a blanket depicting a First Nations medicine wheel. It's been so far, so good since then as Mitchell continues to connect with his Indigenous roots.

"I had no spirit and now I have a spirit," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's case was probably among the simpler ones the court has had to deal with.

On the first Tuesday of each month, a table is placed at the front of the courtroom and a judge steps out from behind the bench to join the elders, as well as Crown and defence lawyers to work out "healing plans" for new offenders and get updates from those who are already on them.

Among the cases they were handling this most-recent Tuesday was for a woman who pleaded guilty to shoplifting $630 worth of items from a local thrift store. That happened a year ago, and she followed up in January by followed by lying to an officer when caught smoking crack and then breaching an undertaking.

She ended up at Prince George Regional Correctional Centre for two weeks where she went through withdrawal from heroin - an experience she never wants to go through again.

Normally, Crown counsel would have been seeking a jail sentence but because of the efforts she has taken since then, had agreed to divert the case to Indigenous Court. Those efforts revolved around enrolling in counselling for addiction and trauma and performing various good works in her home community.

During the hearing, it was also learned that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago but ongoing struggles with her medication caused her to stop that regimen and take a different route.

Two years ago, she became a "closet user" of illicit drugs as she turned to self medicating and by 2018 she was a "full on" addict and eventually became homeless, using a shopping cart to carry what possessions she had as she moved around Prince George.

While her lawyer helped guide her through her story, she did most of the talking in marked contrast to a regular court proceeding where the defendant is generally limited to providing comments just prior to sentencing.

It made for plenty of tears and bearing of her soul. At one point, she credited the arresting officer for saving her life while also talking about the anger and confusion she had gone through while growing up and going into her early years as an adult.

Represented by the store's manager, the victim of her shoplifting offence was in the gallery for the hearing, as was the arresting officer, her family, her probation officer and an elder from her home community. She gave profuse and repeated apologies as they looked on.

The woman said she planned to turn to traditional First Nations medicines to regulate the mood swings that come with being bipolar. But one of the court's elders strongly urged her to work with a psychiatrist instead to find the type of medication that will keep her steady while not producing the side effects that kept her from functioning for most of the day.

The elder also said she needed to determine the type of depression she was experiencing and to recognize the triggers that cause her to turn to illicit drugs like heroin. On that note, the woman said she had been in Prince George twice since being released from custody and has made sure she has been with someone to keep her from going back to those ways.

In the end, she was sentenced to 18 months probation with a conditional discharge - the Citizen does not publish the names of those who receive such sentences. Conditions of her probation include staying away from the store for at least six months.

She must also live up to the terms of her healing plan as set out by the elders. Along with making sure she gets the helps she needs for her mental health issues, she must also host a shaming potlatch in her home community, complete with an invitation to the store's manager to attend.

Aboriginal people make up five per cent of the province's population and about 11 per cent of the city's. But they account for nearly one-quarter of B.C.'s prison population and, according to Christina Draegen, about three-quarters of the inmates at Prince George Regional Correctional Centre.

In her role as the northern regional manager of the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., Draegen has been instrumental in getting the court established in Prince George,

"It's not only an opportunity for our indigenous people to repair their broken spirits, cultural spirits but also to reconcile with themselves so that they're in an empowered position to be able to reconcile with the outside world and with community," said Draegen,

The court is open to anyone who self-identifies as Indigenous (the term used to identify both Aboriginal and Metis). Holding a status card is not a prerequisite.