Beginning in the new year, Kamloops will become one of the few settings in B.C. with a dedicated First Nations court.
While details are still being worked out, the court is set to meet once a month at the outset in a room where formality and tradition in sentencing are traded in favour of talking and healing. It is modelled on a restorative justice-community court model.
"It's a dream for me," said Linda Thomas, staff counsel with Tk'emlups Indian Band, who has worked on the concept for more than five years.
The court will follow First Nations courts in New Westminster and North Vancouver. Thomas said two local provincial court judges, Chris Cleaveley and Stella Frame, will be assigned to the court, with Catriona Elliott as the Crown prosecutor.
A duty counsel defence lawyer has yet to be named. The first sitting is expected to be in February.
It will likely be staged outside a formal courtroom, in a conference room setting where the judge will sit at the same level as the accused and engage in a dialogue. In place of traditional sentencing will be a "healing plan."
Also sitting in the room will be First Nations elders, who are being recruited for the task.
"The elders' role is to guide and provide support to that person," Thomas said.
"There's a connection and more accountability."
Aboriginal people are vastly over represented in courts and jails.
Kamloops defence lawyer Jeremy Jensen said the city's legal community favours the idea, but he added there is no funding to ensure those accused have proper defence counsel.
"It's a fixed rate (on legal aid) and you're not paid by the hour. The First Nations court is going to be a lot longer process."
While a duty counsel will be available, Jensen said some First Nations people will already have their lawyer. It will be difficult for lawyers with a busy caseload elsewhere in the courthouse to dedicate the time.
Funding aside, Jensen welcomed the move.
"It will be more of a restorative model rather than the traditional punitive model for sentencing. I think that's what First Nations people need," he said.
"It will allow them to see how their offending affects the community. It might provide a sober second thought for the next time."
Thomas said the court is going ahead without any special funding from the province. She also said some of the sentences will include jail time.
The court could also host a sentencing circle, used in Kamloops for the first time recently.