Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hearings poorly understood

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THERE are many misconceptions about aboriginal parole board hearings.

Among them is that offenders do not have to be aboriginal to get one.

About 10 per cent of the 500 or so aboriginal hearings held every year across Canada are at the request of non-aboriginal offenders.

The latest case involves Haitian-born convicted killer Gregory Bromby, who received an aboriginal parole board hearing Wednesday at Stony Mountain Institution.

Another misconception? An offender won't necessarily know the elder who sits in on the hearing, nor is the elder an advocate for the offender.

"They help the board members understand, explain the significance of the spiritual and cultural practices and how they can be applied," said Gary Sears, deputy regional director general of the Parole Board of Canada in the Prairies.

In 1992, the Parole Board of Canada introduced elders to ensure parole board hearings on the Prairies were sensitive to cultural values and traditions of aboriginal offenders, a year after the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba concluded the justice system was failing aboriginal people.

Since then, hearings have evolved.

The director general for the parole board region decides if an aboriginal hearing will be granted and chooses the elder who will attend. There are five elders on contract for the Prairie region, which includes the Prairie provinces and the Northwest Territories.

Sears said the aboriginal hearings don't differ in substance from standard hearings.

"There's no difference in terms of rigour assigned to a hearing between an elder-assisted and a regular hearing."

But it does look and feel less formal, Sears said.

An elder will open and close a hearing with a prayer and a smudge, when smoke from burning sage or sweetgrass is used as incense in a meditative ceremony.

Instead of an inmate facing two parole board members across a table, they all sit in a circle, usually on chairs but sometimes on cushions to conduct the hearing.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2012 A4

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