First Nations court ready for launch in Prince George

Prince George will soon be home to a First Nations court.

An opening ceremony will be held on March 23, the B.C. Provincial Court confirmed this week, while the court is to start hearing cases in the first week of April.

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It marks the culmination of three years of effort by a working group in answer to the number of indigenous people caught up in the criminal justice system.

The announcement put Christina Draegen, northern regional manager of the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., in an upbeat mood.

"We're so excited," she said Tuesday. "This is history we're making in the north with respect to this approach to justice."

It will be based out of the Prince George courthouse and to have a case heard in the venue, the offender must be aboriginal and have pleaded guilty to a minor crime.

From there, a provincial court judge would oversee a process similar to a restorative justice sentencing circle with the stakeholders gathering around a circular table to discuss the case.

With the help of friends, family and other advocates, a picture would be painted for the judge of who the offender is and the underlying reasons that brought him or her into conflict with the law.

With the help of an elder, a "healing plan" is drafted, focussed primarily on dealing with the issues that got the offender in trouble in the first place, but could also include doing community work and repaying the victim for the damage done.

The terms would then be issued in the form of probation and, depending on the case, if the offender meets the goals and objectives, the offense could be waived from the criminal record.

Conversely, jail time could also be issued. And if the healing plan isn't followed, there could be a greater consequence.

Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, who was the B.C. public safety minister and solicitor general when the Liberals formed the government, has long been a supporter of the concept.

"Anything we can do to address the uniqueness of First Nations issues in policing, in criminal law, in social aspects, we need to do," he said Tuesday.

He disagrees with the assertion from some that the court amounts to special treatment for indigenous people.

"First Nations occupy a significant part of our corrections system and for no good reason other than the fact that they're involved in drugs and alcohol addiction issues, mental health issues and those are the kinds of things that we need to filter out," Morris said.

Indeed, Morris said he would like to see the approach made an option for everybody facing sentencing for a petty crime committed because of an addiction issue or due to poverty.

"We need to divert them and we need to focus on a community restorative justice system that includes things like the native courts that we see coming up here," he said.

Aboriginal people make up five per cent of B.C.'s population but account for about one-quarter of all provincial inmates.

Prince George RCMP Supt. Warren Brown said welcomed the news but warned a First Nations court is "not a silver bullet that fixes all that ails us in our community."

"But looking at the history of indigenous people in Canada, there are a lot of high-risk factors that really isolate them from what others traditionally and presently enjoy," Brown added. "And that includes residential school impact, poverty impact, colonization and what I hear from aboriginal leadership, not only in our community but at large, is that there has to be better ways of doing business."

It will be the sixth such court to be opened in B.C. The others are located in New Westminster, Duncan, Kamloops, North Vancouver and Merritt.

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