The concept of an aboriginal justice system to cut native involvement in crime by targeting the issues that land First Nations people disproportionately in jail is valid and past due in the province that spawned the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Yet, Manitoba is some distance from a solid, workable model for an aboriginal court.
Court actors, including judges, say Manitoba is failing in its basic obligations to native people, including the production of quality pre-sentence reports that describe the background of aboriginal offenders. All offenders can submit such reports, but they are mandatory for native people to comply with a Supreme Court decision that recognized their unique history and the lingering damage of colonial policies that contribute to higher rates of social and economic malaise and, consequentially, higher crime rates.
The Justice Department says it is working on improving report preparation, but it will also have to boost post-sentencing programs, where offenders can address their addictions, mental-health issues and cultural dysfunctions, which is key to staying out of crime.
There is reason to proceed with caution: Manitoba's native child-welfare system, launched in 2005, was inadequately prepared to deal with demand from families and the duty to protect children. Aboriginal courts in other jurisdictions experienced growing pains along with successes: Saskatchewan's Cree court improved the legitimacy of judges in the community and cut backlogs but had difficulty retaining court staff trained in the language, which has slowed down the administration of justice.
Some will oppose a separate justice system, but the best option is the one that works. The adversarial court tradition that emphasizes punishment has filled Manitoba's jails with multi-generations of native people. A system that seeks to resolve conflict by recognizing responsibility to a victim and a community might lay bare the useful limits of denunciation and deterrence. That would be instructive to the pursuit of justice generally.