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Their work resulted in a courtroom arranged in a circle as a conscious break from the fusty rigid lines common within conventional criminal justice forums. Story continues below advertisement A bear’s head is carved into the top of an eagle staff in the courtroom, lit by a skylight above. The IPC is decorated with Indigenous symbolism and equipped with features that facilitate conversation. The courtroom is sheathed in corrugated wood acoustically designed to help people hear each other speak. A custom venting system clears the smoke from smudging ceremonies that kick off most proceedings. A skylight lets in the morning sun to help quell the anxiety that inevitably surrounds the criminal justice system.
But the biggest innovation in the room is its lack of hierarchy. “The most important element, architecturally, is there’s essentially a round table – there’s no raised dais for the judge to sit at. The judge is on the same level as everybody else,” says provincial government architect Erik Andersen. Ontario’s first specialized court was created in a standard-looking courtroom in Toronto in 2001 just two years after a watershed Supreme Court decision directed lower courts to consider the decades of dispossession suffered by Indigenous people. The 1999 Gladue ruling advised judges to hear out the story of any Indigenous person accused of a crime – and also their family’s story – before making judgments. Judges were also asked to give heightened consideration to conditional releases that can involve counselling, education or cultural-awareness programs. The IPC’s tailor-made approach to restorative justice can take time. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the court in Thunder Bay handled non-violent criminal charges and only sat about 20 days a year, dealing with about 10 accused each month.
The focus is on steering people on a path to rehabilitation instead of jail. Candidates who want to appear have to identify as Indigenous, plead guilty to a crime and agree to start working on their rehabilitation right away. If these preconditions are met, a judge will put a formal sentencing hearing on pause as court officials work with local Indigenous groups to devise a healing plan. Roseanna Hudson is legal program co-ordinator at the city’s Indigenous Friendship Centre.Elders, caseworkers, Gladue report writers and counsellors who work outside courtroom walls are the unsung heroes of the IPC system, says Roseanna Hudson, legal program co-ordinator at Thunder Bay’s Indigenous Friendship Centre. The organization plays a crucial background role in everything that happens inside the court. All too often, Ms. Hudson says, judges and prosecutors in the conventional system extract promises that the accused cannot keep – and the subsequent breaches mean they inevitably end up in jail again and again.
“Sometimes they’re too busy trying to figure out where the heck they are going to live, or where they are going to eat or sleep that night, than to worry about a phone call to a probation officer or to Thunder Bay police,” Ms. Hudson says. The IPC gives people the chance to correct course. When all the goals of a healing plan are met, a sentencing judge may waive or reduce a potential jail term. Those who are successful are given a graduation ceremony in the court that sees the defendant wrapped in a fleece blanket, embraced by everyone present. “In the regular courtroom, you rarely get to the root causes,” Justice Joyce Elder says. “We don’t get hugs in the regular courtroom – we do here.” Justice Elder, the regional senior judge for Thunder Bay, said she sees the specialized court as a welcome change. She leads a dozen Ontario Court of Justice judges in hearing cases across a Northwestern Ontario region that’s almost the size of France. Often they mete out justice in makeshift courtrooms in remote communities. There, the expressed hopes of the Supreme Court have often never materialized into anything tangible.
The Gladue ruling acknowledged the importance of recognizing the unique circumstances of Indigenous offenders, “but it also talked about alternative sentencing options – and the resources have not gone into that, I think it’s fair to say,” Justice Elder says. “By the time it gets to us, the system hasn’t worked well – and we’re the last resort.” At top, a banner affixed to the eagle staff reads “Gagiigimigoisiwining,” which means positive, constructive direction is provided to guide people through their journey of life. At the base of the staff, bottom, a medicine bag sits atop a turtle shell. The pandemic has brought Ontario’s Indigenous People’s Courts to a near standstill, with in-person hearings hard to come by in all manner of court proceedings, now replaced by videoconferences. Although no date has been set yet for the return of in-person hearings, Ontario is committed to making sure that the specialized courts “become safely operational again as soon as possible,” said Ontario Court of Justice spokesperson James Schneider.
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