Judge Joanne Challenger usually sits at the judge’s bench, high above the offender and their counsel, to preside over the North Vancouver Provincial Court. But today is different. Challenger scribbles notes in her ledger from a table in front of the gallery, across from a 22-year-old man from the Squamish Nation. At eye-level she discusses his sentence — not with his attorney but directly with him.
The offender admits to violating the terms of his probation — he wasn’t supposed to be drinking but on one occasion he couldn’t resist. Yet rather than chastise him for his transgression, Challenger looks him in the eye and asks if he knows why Aboriginal people suffer disproportionately from alcoholism. He shakes his head. “No.”
She tells him about isolation created by the reserve system, how residential schools took their children and culture away, and that alcohol was readily available to vulnerable First Nations communities.
All this to say addiction and alcoholism is not just an individual problem but that systemic issues need larger-scale solutions.
After her condensed lesson on First Nations history, Challenger turns to the gallery and asks if anyone in the court has something they would like to say.
While it may seem like this judge is skirting hundreds of years of entrenched courtroom protocol, Challenger is actually employing a new principle of B.C.’s First Nations Court system. A recent Supreme Court ruling requires judges to consider Aboriginal offenders’ wider history and circumstances when sentencing.
A different kind of court
In an effort to stop the vicious cycle of crime and addictions among Coast Salish people, North Vancouver recently held their inaugural First Nations Court. It mirrors an existing arrangement installed in New Westminster in 2006, that focuses on a restorative approach to sentencing.
“In mainstream British Columbia, the average person on the street, when they think about court, they think ‘I am going to go in front of the judge and he or she will sentence me and that will be it,’” says Karen Whonnock, a lawyer and doctoral student studying Aboriginal court systems.
“When you take a holistic approach to healing you’re addressing other parts, you’re looking at everything — poverty, upbringing, residential schools, inter-generational survivor of residential schools.”
This approach to sentencing is one Judge Marion Buller Bennett, who presides over the New Westminster First Nations Court, practices as well. And it’s an approach that seems to be working. Buller Bennett says the rate of recidivism, or the tendency to re-offend, is fairly low.
Before Challenger decides on the young man’s sentence, a team of health, addictions and youth workers seize the opportunity to speak on his behalf.
Hitam Treadwell, a youth services worker with the Squamish Nation, wasn’t expecting to say anything in court, but his passion for helping his community compels him to stand up and speak. He offers to create a volunteer position for the defendant so that he can give back to their community.
First Nations Courts permit input from anyone in the community who want to support the offender in a way that addresses the root causes of a problem — whether a mental health, substance abuse or domestic issue.
Elders, health and social workers, and family members offer stories and perspective. Their words contribute to this restorative justice approach to sentencing.
“I think people like Judge Challenger understand that history is what it is,” Treadwell says following the court session. “She can’t go back and change it. But what she can do is be part of the continuing, ongoing process with our community members and respect our tradition and culture as it needs to be, within a system that’s foreign to us.”
When crimes are fuelled by addiction, the sentence is often linked to rehabilitation efforts. For Squamish members that can mean spending time in their longhouse to practice traditional healing methods intended to eradicate the addiction.
This type of sentencing is often termed “alternative.” But Whonnock, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, says that for First Nations peoples, the current court system is the alternative. It is an alternative that has ignored “Indigenous ways, values, traditions,” and has led to a hugely disproportionate representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.
Indeed, while Aboriginal populations comprise less than three per cent of the national adult population, more than 18 per cent of incarcerated Canadians are of First Nations, Métis or Inuit ancestry, according to a 2006 Correctional Service Canada report.
Listen: Hitam talks about helping troubled youth in the community.
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Battling addiction in the community
For Treadwell, North Vancouver’s new First Nations Court offers some hope for troubled Squamish members, particularly those trapped in what he terms “a revolving door of addictions and crime.”
“The judge is sitting across from you and is asking you for your story,” he says. “If you end up breaking down, that’s what she needs to see and what everyone needs to see — that there is some sincerity in your life and that you care and you recognize that things have gone bad for you over and over again.”
Treadwell gets recognized as he walks through the streets of Xwemelch’stn, the Squamish reserve on the north shore of Vancouver’s Lower Mainland — one of 23 Squamish villages scattered throughout the region. His hulking physical stature, charisma, blended ethnic heritage and a 2-0 mixed martial arts record mean most people know him by name.
The First Nations Court compliments Treadwell’s toolkit of methods he employs to help Squamish members kick their addictions and stay out of the criminal justice system.
“We try to do prevention and not crisis intervention all the time,” Treadwell says.
He and his fellow Squamish health and social workers believe in helping those that ask for it — the only catch is that they have to be willing to put in the work.
Treadwell knows this type of commitment isn’t easy to make.
“I am only three and a half years clean and sober myself, so I know what they’re going through,” he says. “I see these guys in the system that I’ve partied with and I tell them ‘I’ll be here when you’re ready, to support you.’”
Despite repeated attempts by friends and family to help Treadwell sober-up after years of drug and alcohol abuse, one particular night of drinking provided the wake-up call he needed.
“When I was leaving my house at 4:30 in the morning with a bag full of wine and walking away from my wife to go drink some more — that was it. I kind of snapped out of it.”
Treadwell sought support from a program offered by the shipyard he worked at. It helped him pay for the treatment he needed.
Returning home with a newfound zest for life, he became passionate about helping others overcome similar problems.
“I figured out I wasn’t supposed to be an addict and a drunk and that I’m supposed to help people,” he says.
Supporting youth in their battle
Treadwell recognizes that not everyone has a strong support network. This is what he tries to provide — especially to Squamish teens who are committed to changing their habits, like 18-year-old Xavier Thomas.
“I never really lived with my parents much,” Thomas says. “I lived on the island for quite awhile with my grandpa. My dad used to beat my mom quite a bit, and me. So lots of anger comes from there.”
Being a competitive lacrosse player, a descendent of generations of longhouse dancers and a year away from high school graduation, it’s hard to believe Thomas has struggled with alcohol. He began drinking at 13.
Treadwell knows this battle all too well. “I think (drinking) makes it easier,” he says. “You get to forget. You get to numb yourself. Numb your pain. I think that’s what a lot of our kids go through and continue that cycle as an adult.”
The reformed addict introduced Thomas to boxing as an effort to redirect the teen’s time and energy.
“Boxing is helping a lot,” Thomas says. “I take out my anger there. It’s bottled up from all those years.”
The young athlete never spoke about his childhood until this year when he started working with Treadwell and another counselor. Since then, he describes himself as “more wise.”
Treadwell hopes the young people he works with will all become better decision makers like Thomas has — even though the youth has made a few wrong turns.
“The addict craves, and if you don’t have a job, you do what you have to to get the money – steal cars, rob from your folks,” Treadwell says. “That’s why some people can’t come home because they’ve burnt bridges. They just become a nuisance to the community but they want to be home.”
Treadwell sees hope in the First Nations Court — a system that faces addiction head-on with the support of family and community members.
“That’s one of the things that draws me to First Nations Court. Some of these guys are my age, some are a little bit older and they’ve been that way for most of their lives. I know the struggle they are going through. The revolving door of addictions is huge.”
Judge Challenger not only asks defendants if they understand why they have alcohol or drug problems, but also where they hope to be in the future. Her sentencing is built around people in the community supporting an individual to make the change he or she desires.
“Sometimes our people don’t even ask what the kids want to do,” Treadwell says. “That’s the first thing I ask. What is it that you want? I can tell you ten million different things to do, but what do you want? How far out of reach do you think that is? Well guess what, it’s not that far. It’s one step, two step, three steps and you’re there.”
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Tyler Harbottle is a Vancouver-based writer, journalist and researcher focusing on energy, sustainability and natural resource topics. You can reach him by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @tharbottle.
Sadiya Ansari is a public servant turned journalist who loves the politics of policy – near and far. You can see what she’s up to on Twitter @SadiyaAnsari or reach her at email@example.com.