June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. Canada’s history of colonization included the introduction of retributive justice. This has created a system that has an overrepresentation of Indigenous people incarcerated with alarming statistics. Indigenous adults represent 4.1% of the overall Canadian population but accounted for almost 30% of the total admissions into custody in 2016-17. The Alberta Law Foundation recognizes the importance of working with Indigenous Peoples towards Truth and Reconciliation and furthering the Calls to Action and Calls for Justice. The Foundation provides funding under four objects – one of which is supporting Indigenous People’s legal programs.
In order to address the systemic issues facing Indigenous people within Canada’s legal system, there has been a move towards Indigenous traditional law, which follows common values of restorative justice. These include accountability for one’s personal conduct, helping or healing those who have transgressed, valuing relationships and living in the proper way. One of the core approaches of restorative justice, Peacemaker Circles, has been reintroduced to work in tandem with, and provide a viable alternative to, the courts. As part of the Indigenous courts in Edmonton and Calgary and offered as an option in the Lethbridge court, Peacemaker Circles have been funded by the Foundation and run by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA) since 2019.
Robyn Scott, Director of Operations at NCSA, highlights the importance of approaching conflict with the law from an Indigenous lens:
“Our current legal system is not viewed through an Indigenous lens and does not take into consideration the distance people have to travel to appear in Court, the poverty experienced in families and in communities and the multifamily situations that incurring fines has on that family’s stability.” Scott goes on to say, “The aim of this [Peacemaker] program is to incorporate traditional Indigenous teachings into the existing legal system, to provide greater understanding of how ways of knowing can provide restorative solutions to existing legal problems.”
The Peacemaker programs speak directly to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action numbers 30, 31 and 40, which relate to overrepresentation, community sanctions and victim programs.
What is a peacemaker circle?
As described by NCSA: “Peacemaker circles historically are for healing relationships and keeping them healthy by exploring how communities can respond to crimes in ways that address the needs and interests of all those affected: victims, offenders, their families and friends, and the community. Based on Indigenous teachings combined with current research in conflict resolution, the Circle process describes how to build an intentionally safe space where we can bring our best selves to some of our most difficult conversations.”
Peacemaker circles allow the offender to accept responsibility, repair harm caused by the behaviour, and give victims and the community a voice in the process. Once the offender is willing to participate in the Peacemaker Circle, the team from NCSA discusses this decision with the Crown/Defense and then sets up Pre-Conference Interviews and preparations with the offender, victim, community, and other stakeholders so they can make an informed decision regarding their intentions to continue with the process. Once these interviews are completed, the team will arrange a venue for the Circle to take place. Participants are seated in a circle. This includes the offender and their support people, the victim and their support people, any stakeholder that has agreed to participate with the recommendations, the facilitator and the Elder. A talking feather (or talking piece) is used to ensure respect between the victim/offender/participants.
The outcome of the process will be a consensus decision which honours the values and principles of the Peacemaker Circle, and the recommendations from that will be reported to the court. Recommendations vary depending on what is agreed to but could take into consideration anger management, alcohol treatment, making amends to the family/victim, etc. The Court/Crown would give the offender a time frame to follow through with the recommendations, and the Peacemaker team would then check in with the offender to ensure follow-through is happening. A report is completed by the Peacemaker Coordinator, which goes back to the Court for a Judge to rule on the outcome. If the offender has not followed through, the report would state that, and then the Crown would decide how to proceed.
Robyn Scott, Director of Operations at NCSA, outlines the success of the program to date and why it is important to continue developing opportunities for Indigenous justice:
“Peacemaker Circles and other restorative dialogue processes offer a simple yet profound method of creating deeper, more meaningful relationships among people who have a shared interest in addressing conflict and harm and building healthy relationships through collective action and mutual responsibility. Through supported resolution alternatives for legal matters, implementation of this program has advanced community capacity for self-determination in healing, as well as educated the formal legal system in traditional ways of knowing that would work in tandem with the existing provincial legal system.”