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Sarnia court takes new approach to aboriginal justice

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Cathy Dobson

The first hint something is different about this court is the arrangement of tobacco, sage and an Eagle’s feather on a wooden railing behind the defence team.

And when Justice Deborah Austin invited the family of the accused to sit behind him, and even speak if they wish, it is clear a new chapter in aboriginal justice had arrived in Sarnia.

“I know we don’t have a circle or a great seating arrangement, but you’re welcome to be part of this,” Austin told the parents and grandparents of a young offender, who pled guilty last week to charges of assault and causing bodily harm.

Minutes later, defence lawyer Ron George read from a ‘Gladue Report’ presented at the Lambton County Courthouse. It outlined how a family history spent in government-run residential schools and Indian day schools impacted the accused’s poor decisions.

The report went on to explain the general good character of the teen, who used excessive force during a fight.

“The report considers all the special circumstances of aboriginal people and talks about the more wholesome view of the person,” said George, who grew up at the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation north of Sarnia.

George, who has worked as a police officer and a lawyer for 42 years, has long been distressed by the over-representation of indigenous people in Canadian jails.

So has the Supreme Court. In 1999 it ruled that judges must consider the impact of residential schools and other acts of colonialism when sentencing aboriginal offenders.

The ruling acknowledged indigenous people are victims of both systemic and direct discrimination, even in jail where they’re less likely than others to be rehabilitated.

The principles of the Gladue ruling, based on a case known as R. v Gladue, have been slow to catch on. But an effort by local lawyers, legal aid workers, judges and the Crown means local aboriginal offenders can now attend the Gladue Court each Thursday in Sarnia.

George said he was asked by Kettle and Stony Point’s chief to establish such a court.

“Now, we’re finally talking about the possibility of fewer people in our jails. We can feel free to talk about those things that are important to us,” he said.

“I see an openness among the judges and their willingness to try, and I believe it’s just a matter of time when we’ll see the numbers in custody decrease.”

Lawyer Matt Stone also worked hard to establish Sarnia’s Gladue Court.

“At the end of the day, we can see that a lot of the people involved with the justice system need help and this is our attempt to provide support and healing.

“It is working at the Gladue Court on Walpole Island where offence rates are down,” Stone said.

The public gallery this day included a caseworker, police officer, substance abuse counsellor, justice worker and the co-ordinator of a direct accountability program, all ready to help. As one lawyer remarked, there were more support people than accused in court that day.

And then, another astonishing difference.

In passing sentence, Justice Austin ordered an eight-month probation period and grief counselling for the offender, after learning from the Gladue Report of a significant death in the family weeks before the fight.

Then, she ordered the offender to attend a mentors and boys club run by Kettle and Stony Point.

George had never heard a court issue such an order before, and it brought a smile to his face.

“In order for us to succeed at this we need to help develop a good sense of self-image,” he explained.

“The mentors and boys club is meant to teach an understanding of aboriginal culture and responsibility for ourselves.

“It teaches what it means to be a man in the Ojibwa community.”

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