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Leaders discuss creating native court in Manitoba

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Manitoba may soon get what Toronto, Vancouver and even Prince Albert, Sask. already have -- an aboriginal court.

Northern Grand Chief David Harper joined Chief Provincial Court Judge Ken Champagne, staff from the Crown's office and defence lawyers at a roundtable meeting Friday morning vowed to explore setting up what would be Manitoba's first aboriginal community court.

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It was a preliminary meeting, so what an aboriginal court would look like remains up in the air, and requires significant research, co-ordination and funding, said Harper.

But Harper said he envisions courts, some likely located in northern Manitoba, held in Dene, Cree and Oji-Cree. He also would like to see elders bring elements of traditional justice into the process and provide offenders with access to drug treatment, healing circles or other programs that could better halt a cycle of crime and reduce the rising cost of prosecutions and incarceration.

Statistics Canada said last fall it costs about $130,000 per year to house a federal inmate, money Harper said would be better spent healing broken people and communities.

"It is time to take the helm," said Harper. "We have to start somewhere."

Despite its huge aboriginal population, Manitoba is a laggard when it comes to innovative solutions for the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in prisons and jails. More than 70 per cent of inmates in provincial jails are aboriginal, and roughly one in five in federal prisons are M©tis or from First Nations.

Toronto has the oldest urban aboriginal court in Canada, but it seems old-school compared to newer models, such as Yukon's peacemaker court, where elders join a judge in passing sentence, or Vancouver's First Nation court, which is based on recommendations in Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

Aboriginal courts follow the Criminal Code and Canadian jurisprudence, but they typically involve elders, mediation with victims and rehabilitation programs that draw on aboriginal traditions.

The Supreme Court paved the way for aboriginal courts in the 1999 Gladue decision, which expanded upon Criminal Code provisions that say courts must seek alternatives to incarceration, especially for aboriginal people. Canada's top court said judges must also consider an aboriginal offender's personal history and the century of government policies that have devastated aboriginal institutions, family structures, land rights and cultural traditions.

Harper said the next step is to study how other aboriginal courts work, including some in the United States, and develop a proposal to pilot a made-in-Manitoba one.

Darren Sawchuk, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba and one of the people at Friday's meeting, cautioned discussions are just at the preliminary stage, and must be led by the aboriginal community. But he said he was encouraged by Friday's meeting.

"The seed has been planted," he said. "The AJI was 25 years ago, and I don't think we've come very far trying to solve some of these issues. I think everyone recognizes we need to do some things differently."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2013 A8

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