I had a long history with the justice system.
The early years of my adult life were years of agonizing turmoil. I was overwhelmed by sudden bouts of terror, paranoia and waking dreams that felt real. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that arose from severe childhood abuse, but I didn’t know that. So my involvement with courts and institutions was fueled by PTSD and alcohol.
For years, I thought I was just plain crazy. I would have things in order in my life, a job, a home, a semblance of a future. Then I would be triggered by something — the PTSD would overwhelm me, I would drink to drown the feelings and be incarcerated.
About 3½ years ago, PTSD erupted again. I was arrested on three counts of impaired driving in three weeks. I could not recall the circumstances of those incidents then or now.
Since then I have used abstinence, therapy, researching my condition, practicing thought-stoppers and alternative means of controlling my triggers to get on with the business life.
I have not had a drink or a traumatic episode in all that time. Why? Not simply because of a desire to change and learning to manage my condition. The non-native court had a big hand in it.
The court and the sentencing judge took into account my aboriginal history — foster homes, adoption, abuse, homelessness, alcoholism, and my lifelong struggles with PTSD.
When the sentence was pronounced, there was a 45-minute reading of the judgment. It contained all the relevant information regarding why I was standing there that day.
When I left the courthouse, I was grateful. They had heard me. They had seen me in the light of life circumstances over which I had no control and had severely impacted me. I was judged and sentenced by the facts of my life and my demonstrated desire to change them not just by the fact that I was aboriginal.
Which leads me to question, do we need a separate justice system for aboriginal people?
The answer is a resounding maybe.
If you’re charged with crimes and suddenly become a staunch traditional person with a healthy respect for elders, ceremony and traditional principles because you think an aboriginal court will give you a better deal, then, no.
But if you examine your life and can see it’s actually you who are responsible for a horrendous record or a series of alcohol- or drug-fueled mistakes and you earnestly want to change that, then, yes.
But prove it before sentencing. Take treatment. Work with a therapist. Show a changed life. Then ask for an aboriginal court.
I had to take responsibility for my PTSD and alcohol. This won’t make me very popular with aboriginal people. But the truth is, the only force capable of changing a life comes from within. A court can’t do that. A culturally specific court can’t do that either.
If between arrest and sentencing an aboriginal person demonstrates change by taking action, an aboriginal court would have a major influence on assisting that change.
I changed my life. The court didn’t. They just made it possible for me to continue my healing journey. But they heard me. They looked at and considered my history. They sentenced me.
That, in the end, is justice.