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In April, when he appeared before the Standing Commitee on Justice and Legal Affairs, he said, "Over the years, reports and inquiries have concluded that Canada's aboriginal peoples do not believe that the justice system meets their needs. They experience disproportionately higher levels of arrest, conviction, incarceration and recidivism. In seeking equal justice for all people in Canada, I have a special mandate to identify criminal justice system alternatives that better respond to the needs of our aboriginal people."
The process has begun. In a recent visit to Saskatoon to meet with members of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) he said, "I had a good meeting with Chief Roland Crowe and Vice-Chief Bellegarde and took forward to working with the FSIN in the days ahead."
One of his priorities, he says, is to work towards a justice system with a greater element of fairness. "This I believe will contribute to the development of aboriginal self-government in the truest sense. Ron Irwin (Minister of Indian Affairs) will take the lead in negotiations and discussion regarding inherent right to self government. But that has obvious implications for justice and I will be involved in the mechanism," says Rock.
Rock says that though he has a great deal more to learn, he has been impressed with aboriginal justice initiatives and pilot projects, which appear to be working. He cites the Poundmaker Band where offenders are able to take their case to the band's justice commission before formal charges are laid. If the commission and the victim agree to the process, the offender and the victim are brought together with a group of elders and community members to try to determine what prompted the offender's behaviour. Within this Healing Circle, issues are being resolved outside of the traditional court system, as the community seeks to heal rather than punish the offender.
The fact that 75 per cent of those in Saskatchewan jails today are aboriginal, yet make up only 10 percent of the province's population, certainly suggests the need for a more equitable system. Rock sees a two-track policy; a more immediate adaptation of the present system and a longer term plan to implement a separate aboriginal justice system.
For example, he says, a statement of principles in sentencing has just been introduced stating that, except where it is needed for the protection of others, incarceration should be used as a last resort, particularly in the case of aboriginal people.
Federal and provincial ministers responsible for Justice have agreed that the justice system has failed and is failing aboriginal people and agree that a holistic approach, including the healing process, is essential in aboriginal justice reform. They have pledged to work together and with aboriginal community leaders in support of these priorities. Are they making headway?
"Absolutely," says FSIN Vice-Chief Dan Bellegarde. "The Federal Justice Minister is listening and there is a window of opportunity at the moment to support a First Nations Institute for Justice. I met with Mr. Rock and we will be presenting a proposal for the development of an Institute," he says.
Pilot projects are good up to a point, explains Bellegarde, but to stand the test of time and have a logical development, there needs to be a framwork to develop far-reaching, long term solutions, which an institute would provide.
As First Nations move towards self-determination, this seems a logical progression. There are already institutes established for education, economic development, and recreation, each with their own set of internal priorities. As a basis for self-government, there has got to be control of an aboriginal justice system, says Bellegarde.
"Tribal councils, especially Prince Albert, have developed internal, community systems; as have Piapot, Onion Lake and Poundmaker, and we're learning from those," he says.
Alongside these pilot projects, a number of other initiatives are laying strong foundations for a First Nations justice system. An intergovernmental conference is upcoming, where First Nations government, provincial government and federal government will meet as equals to discuss issues of justice. An Agenda for Action Conference is being sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan. A Tribal Court Symposium will gather input from the Navaho Tribal Court, the Yukon, Ontario, Manitoba, the Mohawk court system and Saskatchewan.
Bellegarde talks of the two-track system mentioned by Rock. "In the short-term, we're making changes within the current system. In the longer term, we're developing a system controlled by our own people."
There is much work to do, he says. Complex agreements will have to be put in place regarding cross jurisdiction. There are already various commissions to develop frameworks for First Nations law, such as Hunting, Fishing and Trapping, Health and Social Development, an Education Commission. Now there will be a Justice Commission.
At last month's Assembly of First Nations, there was a first reading of the Police Services (First Nations) Act, to establish a framework for policing services for First Nations based on Indian law, culture, customs, values, beliefs, traditions and standards.
Following the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report findings, which Rock says should be out this fall, the first Tribal Justice Commission will begin its work, says Bellegarde. Three equal entities will be working together - First Nations alongside provincial and federal governments - to develop a system of justice that will be administered by aboriginal people for aboriginal people, to create one of the single most important building blocks of self determination.