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Gerry Morin, a Cree from Treaty 6 area in Saskatchewan, recounted a lively discussion he had once with friends, trying to come up with a Cree word for hippopotamus. Not being native to their lands, obviously the animal had never been given a name in their mother tongue.
"Well after a long while, the best we could come up with was (a string of Cree words) - which translates as `from the land of the Black people comes a heavy-footed, wide-bodied, wide-assed, under-water pig.'
"You know, we're trying to figure out what justice is," he continued. "We figured out what hippopotamus is, but we're still trying to figure out what justice is."
What justice is and what it will be in the future for Native communities was the focus of the talks organized by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples - and the idea of justice was difficult to pin down. But there was general agreement by each person who spoke during the three days, that the existing justice system doesn't work.
Though Aboriginal people account for approximately four per cent of the population of Canada, 12 per cent of the federal penitentiary population is Aboriginal. And though there have been more than 30 government-sponsored studies on Native justice in the last 25 years, little has changed.
The commission also heard that Native people see the existing system as ineffective because of its confrontational and adversarial nature - the way it pits one person against another or a group of others.
Leroy Littlebear, a Native American Studies professor from Alberta summed up his interpretation of the court process succinctly saying, "The whole process of assessing credibility ... you've got two liars up there, and the judge has to sort out the truth."
Federal justice Minister Kim Campbell noted, "too many Aboriginal people are incarcerated in federal, provincial and territorial institutions, " often because they didn't' have enough money to pay fines. She also conceded that, "Meaningful change is possible, but the time has come to get beyond talk. We have an obligation to take the things we have learned and build upon it... We have a long way to move if the justice system is to move away from speaking at Aboriginals in favour of speaking for them and from them."
Like the notion of self-government, the concept of Aboriginal justice will mean different things to different people and to different communities. The matter of whether there is room for interpretation of the existing justice system or whether there will have to be two separate parallel systems was raised. But it became quite clear that with or without the sanction of the governments, Native communities are instituting their own justice systems.
"Many Aboriginal communities are practising Aboriginal common law with or without the knowledge of government," noted John Giokas, a lawyer from British Columbia in his paper on how the Canadian justice system could be adapted to accommodate Aboriginal concerns. "Government has to come in on a true tripartite agreement and say, `Okay, this is what you're doing, or have been doing. How can we help?' It will require willingness on the part of justice officials.
Mary Ellen Turpel, a lawyer from Nova Scotia who is also the constitutional advisor for the Assembly of First Nations, also presented a paper at the conference urging the broadest interpretations of justice be used in creating Aboriginal justice systems. "We've got to take away the notion of crime against the state. The adversarial, accusatorial system is not very respectful from the Aboriginal point of view, and the idea that truth can come out of combat is out of keeping with the Aboriginal point of view. There will be administerial problems (of how to institute a separate justice system) but those are superficial.
"Let's have the broadest possible opening so that spirituality can be brought into the justice system so it can work for us. All we say is we're different and we're entitled to be different," stated Turpel.
Ovide Mercredi, AFN Grand Chief, added that any system is capable of change if the political will is there and that Aboriginal people are waiting to hear of a major policy announcement from the Ministry of Justice.
Several of the people in attendance reminded the gathering that Aboriginal people had their own justice systems before contact with European settlers in keeping with their beliefs and traditions.
Tony Mandamin, a Native lawyer based in Alberta contrasted the Native and the non-Native justice systems: "In the Indian system, there would be no trial. In the traditional system, everybody knew you did it, the person who did it didn't deny it. The community is consensus-driven and if you had a reputation as a liar, it's difficult to live in the community..." He noted that in the non-Native system, a trial could take a week or more, while the sentencing takes about five minutes. "In the Indian system, the sentencing could take a week. All these alternative systems talked about here, the sentencing takes time."
"People have gotten used to their elders having no authority, but if they see the judge respects their authority, they will come back (to traditional teachings). We can restore to the Indians what they had and was taken away from them," declared Mandamin.