Ask a Lawyer: Healing and peacemaking at Edmonton Indigenous Court

Edmonton's Indigenous court is an opportunity for healing, peacemaking and community support for Indigenous people in the justice system.

Legal Aid AB
June 06, 2023

Edmonton’s Indigenous court is distinct from your typical docket court – aside from the accused, defence counsel, prosecutor and judge, this court process also involves an Elder, a caseworker, an eagle staff and even a smudge ceremony.

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Shalayn Martel appeared on Global News Morning Edmonton’s Ask a Lawyer this month to share what goes on in Indigenous court, how it’s addressing overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system and how it incorporates Indigenous culture and values in the process.

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Related news: Reconciliation and allyship: National Indigenous History Month

Transcript of the program:

Vinesh Pratap: June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada, and a new kind of court in Edmonton, the Edmonton Indigenous Court is taking steps to meet the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. Joining us now is Shalayn Martel from Legal Aid Alberta, good morning, how are you?

Shalayn Martel: Good morning, I’m doing pretty well.

Vinesh: Thank you for being with us. So, take us through what is the Indigenous court here in Edmonton, what is it all about, how long has it been in place?

Shalayn: It’s important we have Indigenous court because Indigenous people are still feeling the effects of intergenerational trauma that’s been caused by residential schools, the 60s Scoop and the Millennial Scoop. This is a history that’s unique to Indigenous people, so a courtroom that is unique to Indigenous people can start to address the impacts that this trauma has caused, and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. The Edmonton Indigenous Court has been around now for just a little bit over a year.

Vinesh: Take us through how the process works from Point A to Point B, to when a person is within the justice system?

Shalayn: So it’s a healing court or a restorative justice court that not only holds people accountable for their actions, but it also addresses the issues that may have led them into the criminal justice system like intergenerational trauma, poverty, housing, or substance abuse or addiction issues. It involves a collaboration from various parties outside of the justice system. Sitting at the roundtable would be the participant, the complainant if they wish to participate, there’s the defence counsel, the justice, Crown prosecutor, a case worker assigned to the participant and an Elder.

The accused is a participant in the process where they work on specific goals, and a healing or wellness plan to achieve what they’re looking to achieve. There are check-ins conducted throughout the process to make sure that the clients are taking action to address the non-legal issues that are bringing them into the system and trying to prevent repeat offences, and it also allows clients to access a courtroom that has access to cultural practices, traditions and values.

Vinesh: Can we expand on the importance of encompassing cultural practices in helping a person not reoffend, and become a contributing member of society?

Shalayn: The courtroom is set up differently than a docket courtroom where we have roundtable so that we can have conversations on an equal level. There’s an eagle staff that’s present in front of the courtroom and the accused also has access to an Elder. The Elder’s recommendations are taken into consideration on their matters, and they also can smudge before speaking and hold an eagle feather. There is also better access to culturally appropriate alternatives to sentencing like peacemaking.

It’s known that being displaced, in foster care and the effects of residential schools caused a disconnection with their cultural identity, families and home communities. This often leads to unfulfilling lives that can lead to substance abuse, mental health issues and violence due to a genuine lack of support. And like the saying goes it takes a village, and this is a collaborative courtroom that aligns with the Indigenous beliefs of interconnectedness and emphasizes how important it is to have community and community supports.

Vinesh: I guess finally even though the court has been around for a year, how do you measure success? What metrics are you looking at based on what’s already happened and look into the future?

Shalayn: So often times non-custodial sentences can be a heavier burden on the participant than jail because they do have to take responsibility for their actions, and it has a bigger benefit for the community in the long run when the participant is able to participate in the community. So in order for them to take part into the healing process, they have to actually be an active participant, take responsibility and engage with the healing plan they create with caseworker. They’re showing that they’re working to address these issues through the multiple check-ins with the court, and they’re provided with supports and resources that they need to address these issues, such as substance abuse treatment, community supports or housing, and like I said earlier, it takes a village to help these participants.

Vinesh: Certainly does, and that applies to each and every one of us. Thank you so much for your time this morning, it’s greatly appreciated. Legal Aid Alberta lawyers specialize in family law, child welfare, domestic violence, immigration, and youth and adult criminal defence. If you have a question for a lawyer, send it to [email protected].

Previously on Ask a Lawyer:

Ask a Lawyer: Mental Health Court and the collaborative approach to justice

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