Smiles and a spiritual ceremony marked the inaugural sitting of the Kamloops First Nations Court Monday.
But within hours the courtroom saw tears and cracked voices as the legacy of Indian residential schools echoed through the room.
"I wasn't expecting this," said Tyler Collins as he walked — escorted by a sheriff and in his orange prison garb — from cells to a central table in the courtroom.
Collins pleaded guilty to breaching an undertaking that forbids him from drinking, one of the conditions of an earlier sentence. He sat at the table with provincial court judge Stella Frame, as well as lawyers and elders recruited to be part of the process.
Typically the judge would sit elevated at the bench at the front of the court, with in-custody offenders like Collins sitting in a secure area located at the side of the room.
Collins, 21, is from the Coldwater Indian Band in the Nicola Valley. His lawyer, Tom Weiss, acknowledged his client already has a long criminal record, including a conviction for sexual assault.
He was granted bail Monday by Frame and given frank and often emotional counselling from First Nations elders. Weiss noted Collins has enduring support from his aunt and grandmother, who were gathered at the same table as the judge, lawyers and elders.
"I've seen the road you're going down — I've been there," elder Russell Casimir warned Collins.
"You're going to be inside (prison) and you're going to get a letter that your grandmother is dead. I've been inside and seen those letters."
Weiss said Collins' parents — who endured residential school as children — gave him up to his aunt and grandmother at five months old. His parents are alcoholics who have never maintained contact with their son.
"I'm sorry that I get choked up," said Weiss, who was not alone fighting back tears during what would otherwise have been a routine court appearance.
"I can't imagine not being raised by a mother and father."
Weiss said Collins "is not a predator" but an offender whose crimes start with alcohol.
Collins himself fought back tears during the hearing, as elders and his own relatives talked about what is needed to keep him out of jail. The elders gathered at the table provided stories from their own pasts, mingled with practical advice.
Several mentioned Nanaimo's Tsow-tun Le Lum Treatment Centre, which focuses on healing those suffering trauma from the residential school system.
Collins pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month for breaching an undertaking that bans him from drinking alcohol. The ban formed part of his probation after serving time for sexual assault.
He was arrested by RCMP after he was found drunk in a public place and released on a promise that he further abstain from drinking. But on Feb. 24 he was found passed out in a stairwell at the Coldwater Hotel. Police placed handcuffs on Collins while passed out, said Crown prosecutor Catriona Elliott.
"The constable knew Mr. Collins could be violent when he woke up," she said.
Collins has breached court-ordered conditions 15 times. The Crown wants him to serve 90 days in jail.
But, in granting him bail, Frame said Collins could help his own cause before sentencing next month by preparing for his "healing plan."
The healing plan is another unique part of the First Nations court — the judge crafts the plan on advice and input of elders, who are at subsequent court appearances to ensure the person who pleads guilty lives by it.
Frame advised Collins to prepare for the healing plan, which will include specialized counselling in Merritt, going to post-secondary school, gathering information on the Tsow-tun Le Lum Treatment Centre program and preparing an employment and spiritual treatment plan.
All those measures were suggested by elders or relatives during the hearing.
"Walk the walk," Casimir told Collins. "The bullshit in jail is finished."
* * *
First Nations Court an unfamiliar place to court veterans
To lawyers who are schooled in traditions of English law and practise in courtrooms each day, the first sitting of the Cknucwentn First Nations Court was an unfamiliar place.
"It's a learning experience for me as well," said Kamloops defence lawyer Dmytro Antonovych, who represented a young girl charged with assault.
"It's very different with feedback (from elders) and back and forth, rather than the sentence being imposed by a judge. I think it's beneficial to my client."
His client, a teen girl, pleaded guilty to assaulting her boyfriend. She recently moved to Kamloops from northern B.C.
Crown prosecutor Catriona Elliott, who is specially assigned to the First Nations court, said an elder provided advice that counselling was available to the girl under a residential school redress program. She was also told to seek help at the Kamloops Indian Friendship Centre.
"That may not otherwise have come out," Elliott said. "Sitting around a table is a different ballgame. It shifts the focus to become more rehabilitative."
The restorative justice model was pioneered in this province in New Westminster and North Vancouver.
Two local provincial court judges — Stella Frame and Chris Cleaveley — will be assigned to the court. It will meet once a month and hear only guilty pleas, not trials.
Any person of First Nations heritage is eligible to go through the court.
Linda Thomas, legal counsel at Tk'emlups Indian Band, said she's been pushing since 2008 for the program to happen. It was approved last year by the chief administrative judge of B.C.'s provincial court.
"It's almost surreal," said a jubilant Thomas, during a break in the proceedings. "I feel like I'm in a dream."
Nine elders sat during the first day. It will typically see five gathered at the table, along with the judge, lawyers and native courtworkers.
"What's key is the involvement of our community and elders today," Thomas said.
An important aspect of the First Nations court will see offenders return, as frequently as each month, to face the elders and report on progresses, and failures, of their healing plan.