The idea of a First Nations Court in Sto:lo territory may be an idea whose time has come.
“We have been looking at this for a very long time,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of Sto:lo Tribal Council, and chair of the First Nations Health Council.
The Sto:lo family court structure would be best presided over by a longstanding community leader, a provincial judge with Sto:lo roots.
“The pitch for this particular idea was to bring Steven Point home,” Grand Chief Kelly remembered this week. “What we meant is that to us, Steven is more than a judge, and more than a lawyer, he is a medicine person. He is a longstanding and respected leader, both culturally and spiritually. He is much more than a judge.”
The idea to select Point for a Sto:lo court was actually the brainchild of Grand Chief Clarence Pennier, who put the idea out there while he was head of the STC, at least 10 or 11 years ago. Some provincial cabinet ministers who heard and supported the idea at the time included John Les and Wally Oppal, Kelly remembered.
“It’s nothing new,” Kelly said.
But there have been very recent discussions about it.
The idea made headlines as several First Nations across B.C. have been pondering how to move forward with their own aboriginal court systems. There are four such First Nations Courts in B.C. at this point handling bail hearings and sentencing hearings, in North Vancouver, New Westminster, Kamloops and Duncan. They use and refer to “Gladue rights” which are special rights extended to aboriginals under the Criminal Code.
The proceedings in First Nations courts are open to those who identify as aboriginal. They employ an indigenous understanding of community and healing, as well as a restorative justice approach to sentencing.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Tyrone McNeil, vice president of STC. “We have kids being apprehended from parents for relatively minor reasons, and this has a tremendous impact both on the children and parents.”
The emphasis has to be on rebuilding relationships and family units, and creating harmony.
Who better to implement Gladue rights than a “qualified First Nations judge?” McNeil said.
“We have been hearing concerns from our members and leaders, that some of our members were appearing in child welfare court, and standing in front of the judge all alone.”
McNeil called that inappropriate, and under First Nations family court they could be represented in court by community advocates or band officials.
“This would balance the playing field.”
The time is right to talk about Sto:lo family court, said Kelly.
There have been “nothing but problems” with the current system, he said.
“There are long delays, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an MCFD case or one from our delegated authority. The current system is not working for us.”
They’ve long sought the chance to flesh out this idea.
The First Nations Health Council that Kelly leads, has signed an MOU with the B.C. government “to work together on social determinants of health,” he noted. Certain cultural considerations would have to be taken into account.
“This is definitely a project we are keen to move on,” he said.
“We need to not only deal with child welfare, including policies, legislation and resources, but we also need to resolve issues with the family court. To me they work hand and hand.”
Acting on the idea hinges on having Point, a former Skowkale chief, Sto:lo Chiefs’ representative, chair of the B.C. Treaty Commission, as well as a lawyer, and provincial court judge, be released from the provincial bench, to come home to take on this particular challenge.
The next step could be discussions with B.C. Chief Justice.
“We have to make sure they are okay with us poaching Steven for this purpose.”
“Not just anyone can do this work, but Steven has all the training as lawyer who has practised law, and one who has also worked as a judge and dealt with family court. He knows provincial law and he also knows our ways.”
A made-in-Sto:lo territory model could be an effective one to resolve issues, that could even be replicated in other communities.
“This coming year I feel it’s going to be enough yakking. Time for action,” said Kelly.