In search for alternatives to jail, special court to open on First Nation

In search for alternatives to jail, special court to open on First Nation

Mi'kmaq people in the neighbouring Cape Breton First Nations of Wagmatcook and Waycobah who find themselves in trouble with the law will soon have a specialty court they can go to in their own community.

The creation of a new Aboriginal Wellness and Gladue Court, announced earlier in the week by the province, is designed to support the cultural needs of Indigenous people in the justice system.

Located in the Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre, the court will consist of three parts when it opens later in the year, according to Paula Marshall, executive director of the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network.

She broke it down for CBC Information Morning Cape Breton host Steve Sutherland.

Regular court

The court will serve as a regular provincial court for arraignments, bail hearings and trials.

"It will be open to residents of Victoria County as well as the two Mi'kmaq communities," Marshall said, noting the location will save many people in the area the time and expense of travelling to court in Sydney or Port Hawkesbury.

Wellness court

This is an arm of the new court system that takes into consideration how an offender may struggle with their attempted rehabilitation.

"Many people in the criminal justice system have one or more issues, such as mental health, addictions, even cognitive challenges that interfere with the offender's ability to change their lives or stay out of jail," said Marshall.

Wellness court is voluntary; offenders can stick with conventional court if they wish. But the strength of the wellness court is that they will be supported and monitored as they are going through programs for up to two years, Marshall said.

"We looking at a more rehabilitative process with the wellness court."

Gladue court

According to the Nova Scotia Justice Department, this court helps "to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people involved in the criminal justice system."

The name Gladue refers to a court case in 1995 in which the defendant successfully argued that sentencing of an Indigenous person should take into consideration the broader issues facing First Nations people. One example is the intergenerational trauma caused by their treatment at residential schools.

The Gladue court focuses on Section 718.2 (e) of the Criminal Code, which states: "all available sanctions, other than imprisonment, that are reasonable in the circumstances and consistent with the harm done to victims or to the community should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders."

Marshall said alternatives could include conditional sentences with participation in cultural programs and time with Mi'kmaq elders.

"What can we do for this person other than sending them to jail?" she said.

The province said this will be the first Gladue court in Nova Scotia. Marshall said that while a wellness court exists in Port Hawkesbury, the facility in Wagmatcook offers all three services and is the first she's aware of at a First Nation in Canada.

The chief of Wagmatcook First Nation, Norman Bernard, is pleased the community has a specialty court of its own.

"We have long advocated for a court in our region that is responsive to our culture and the needs of our community," he said in a written statement.

"This is important, not only for Mi'kmaq in Wagmatcook and We'koqma'q, but also for all the residents of Victoria County."