By: Anne-Marie Langan*
Last Friday (January 12th, 2024) was by far the best experience I have ever had in court in my 19 years of practicing law. I was invited by Mary Jane Boyle (N'gaamaa Migizi kwe), the court support worker at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre, to attend the Indigenous People's Court in Peterborough. What I discovered there was a whole new way of managing criminal matters which is compassionate, supportive, and effective. I also met a judge, lawyers, social workers, counsellors and knowledge keepers who are tremendously caring and dedicated to supporting the indigenous people who come before the court in developing and succeeding with their healing plans.
When I arrived at court I was greeted warmly by Laura Secord, the Indigenous Peoples Court – E Naaknind Anishinaabeg Coordinator. I told her I was visiting from the Peterborough Community Legal Center and that I had brought some pamphlets about our services and some other legal issues that people attending court may be struggling with, and she asked if she could take some back to her office for her clients. To me, this showed her genuine concern for her clients and her commitment to providing holistic services to them. From then on Laura spent most of the morning meeting outside the court with people who were coming to court that day and discussing their cases with other professionals involved in their healing plan.
I then entered the courtroom and was a little confused because although the room itself was a traditional courtroom, there was a round table at the front where several people, including Mary Jane Boyle (N'gaamaa Migizi kwe), were sitting and chatting. I didn't realize until court started that one of the people at the table was the presiding judge. There was also a Knowledge Keeper there who started off the court proceedings with a smudging ceremony and a prayer. As well, each time a new person entered the courtroom she offered them a smudge.
The majority of the court proceedings were informal. There was generally an in-camera discussion with each litigant about the progress they were making in the healing plans. Some were doing very well and had almost completed the plan, others were at the very start of the process and had yet to even complete the application for the Indigenous People's Court. Regardless of where they were all the people at the table, including the defence lawyers, crown attorney, counsellors and knowledge keeper showed a great deal of respect for the person and were keenly interested to hear their stories. On several occasions, the presiding judge welcomed and encouraged litigants to expand on references they had made to something in their personal lives such as the birth of a child or a journey to find their heritage which led to some very touching moments of sharing. At the end of each session, the Knowledge keeper would offer a word of wisdom and encouragement. The goal was for each litigant to leave the court with a clear understanding of what the next steps were for them in terms of both their healing plan and the court process and many left with actual appointment dates and times with those who would be assisting them through the process.
Indigenous People's Court (also known as "Gladue Court") is one of several specialized courts of the Ontario Court of Justice. They are different from regular criminal courts in several respects including:
a) the professionals involved in indigenous court, even though they are not all indigenous themselves, have a genuine interest in working collaboratively with indigenous litigants and helping them heal from whatever led to their becoming involved with the criminal justice system.
b) each litigant is assigned a court worker who helps them to develop a healing plan and supports them in working through it. Sometimes a Gladue report is requested to give the court a holistic account of the litigant's personal history and any systemic factors affecting their progress and healing journey.
c) although Canadian criminal law underlies the process, Indigenous cultural practices and concepts of justice are also included as are the Gladue principles.
d) over time agencies in the community have developed formal diversion programs such as harm reduction, sweat lodges, support for anger management, counselling for substance abuse, housing, vocational training and work experiences such as those provided by the Friendship Centre and the Elizabeth Fry Society.
Now that I have witnessed how effective court can be when people work together to support the litigants and focus on healing rather than punishment, I would like to advocate for all criminal courts and family courts to do the same, particularly when dealing with vulnerable litigants with a history of trauma.
Anne-Marie Langan B.A., B.S.W., LL.B., LL.M. is the project lead for the sexual violence projects at Peterborough Community Legal Centre, including the SHAPE project which provides legal advice and education for those experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace and the Your Way Forward project which provides support for those who have experienced intimate partner sexual violence. These projects are both sponsored by the government of Canada. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.