There is no guarantee a First Nations courtroom set to launch in Kamloops in the new year will be the success some hope it will be. A number of factors will determine whether the court will offer more meaningful resolutions for First Nations offenders than are found in traditional approaches to justice, including - and perhaps most importantly - the character and conduct of the presiding judge.
The Kamloops First Nations court will model itself after the New Westminster First Nations courtroom, which has been in operation since 2006. It sits monthly and hears bail hearings, sentencings and child-protection cases involving aboriginal offenders or parties.
The court there offers alternatives to traditional adversarial justice and is available to self-identified aboriginals.
It focusses on creating a sense of community and ensures all who want a chance to speak are heard.
The courtroom in New Westminster is the domain of provincial court judge Marion Buller-Bennett, who is herself aboriginal and B.C.'s only female First Nations judge. In fact, the very idea of a dedicated courtroom for aboriginal offenders was hers.
At hearings, Judge Buller-Bennett works co-operatively with everyone at the table to come up with an appropriate "healing plan." There is no doubt her guidance and leadership are key reasons why the idea of a First Nations court now grows.
In Kamloops, the First Nations court will be presided over by judges Chris Cleaveley and Stella Frame. Both are experienced and knowledgable but time will tell if they have the right personalities and willingness to preside in a meaningful way over the unique kind of forum the First Nations court will no doubt prove to be.
The idea of a First Nations court is valuable. Canada imprisons too many aboriginal offenders and does not do enough to recognize distinct cultural factors that keep too many on the wrong path.
Judges Cleaveley and Frame have the opportunity to make a difference and contribute to the recognition there is room for better ways of dispensing justice. In large part, the success of the Kamloops First Nations court rests with them.
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