AT the front of the court room, a group of people sit gathered around two tables pushed together to form a makeshift circle.
A young man sits next to his lawyer, listening to his family and members of his extended community tell Judge Joanne Challenger what they hope to achieve through his sentence. Ultimately, they want to get him in to drug and alcohol treatment. The judge, who sits at the table next to the teen's grandmother, invites the teen's uncle and former social worker to join them at the table.
"Does anybody have any other ideas?" she asks.
There is talk about different healing programs for aboriginal youth who are struggling with substance abuse - one run by the Lummi band in Washington State won't take kids who have behavioural problems, another in Hazelton has a very cultural focus.
"Some of our kids are more urban," the social worker tells the judge. "Some kids come back and say they don't like it."
"I guess there are some things to think about," says the judge.
Scenes like this - where justice takes on a less formal and more inclusive approach - are now a regular part of the system in North Vancouver provincial court. One afternoon a month, Judge Challenger steps down from the usual desk raised at the front of the court room and sits at the table with aboriginal offenders and community members for a session of First Nations court. It's a new approach to recognizing the unique circumstances that have brought First Nations people in conflict with the law, with an emphasis on restorative justice and involvement of the wider community.
The court isn't the result of a political directive and there's no extra money to fund it. What it does is make more tangible the direction from the Supreme Court of Canada that judges must take the history of aboriginal people into account in their sentences.
"We have a huge population of aboriginal people," on the North Shore, says Janet Baker, the First Nations court worker in North Vancouver provincial court. Even so, First Nations people are vastly over-represented among those charged with criminal offences. In North Vancouver, for instance, statistics compiled by the North Shore Family Court and Youth Justice Committee indicated between 40 and 45 per cent of youth going through the court are aboriginal - many of them the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors.
"A lot of people are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. They've never gotten over the abuse they suffered," says Baker.
Separated from their own families, survivors never learned how to be parents, perpetuating a multi-generational cycle that all too often has involved drug abuse, alcohol and violence.
David Walsoff, a local defence lawyer, says a majority of his aboriginal clients have substance abuse problems. But "those substance abuse issues are simply symptomatic of the underlying issues in their lives," he says.
First Nations court acknowledges that, and the systemic discrimination and poor social and economic conditions many aboriginal people face.
"There's not enough education of the general public to understand that historical piece," says Andrew Van Eden, justice and special projects officer for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
"We get a sound bite that (an offender) is sentenced to less time because he's aboriginal. The context is completely removed."
The other emphasis of First Nations court - which only deals with sentencing, not trials - is involving the community in its decisions.
In regular court, "we have a legal system," says Van Eden. But in First Nations court, the emphasis is returning to a "justice system," he says. "Justice is an opportunity for affected parties to have an opportunity to do right."
People representing social agencies are in the courtroom and can offer instant suggestions about available resources.
In a recent session of First Nations court in March, "We were able to speak up and say we offer employment and training programs," says Van Eden. Another woman noted a peer support network for youth in government care. In traditional court, those programs might not even be raised as possibilities if lawyers didn't know about them, says Van Eden.
Const. Jeff Palmer of the RCMP's Integrated First Nations Unit on the North Shore is one of those community resources who tries to make a habit of dropping in on First Nations court. It's a decidedly different role than a police officer would normally play. "Typically you're not going to court unless you're a witness," says Palmer. But things are different here.
In one of the first court sessions in February, Palmer addressed one young man directly, to remind him of the impact his criminal actions and continued alcohol abuse were having on his family.
For people who are charged with crimes, coming to First
Nations court also feels different, says Baker.
"In regular court they don't give you the opportunity to ask or answer or say what you feel," she says.
In First Nations court, "they feel like they walk out of court with a little bit of their dignity."
Restorative justice options - rather than jail - should be considered for aboriginal people whenever possible, according to Canada's Supreme Court.
Those options are also usually more successful at preventing repeat offences, says Alex Wolf, another local defence lawyer.
One reason is restorative justice is more up close and personal than the traditional legal system. In restorative justice, "It's looking into the eyes of the community you've harmed and getting a punishment that brings you closer to the harm you've caused. It makes a greater impact," says Wolf.
Wolf says not all of his aboriginal clients want to go to First Nations court. "They'd rather do community service work picking up garbage than shake the hand of the person they've made cry," he says. "If they choose not to participate in it, we won't put them there."
For the most part, however, there are more people who want to go to First Nations court than time available. That means lengthy complex cases usually can't be heard.
So far the court hasn't had to deal with cases involving very serious crimes.
Both Wolf and Walsoff say they disagree with the perception that sentencing in a First Nations court is soft.
"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card to come to aboriginal court," says Wolf. If jail is warranted, "the judge will impose it," he says.
The overall goal, however, is to help break the cycles that are causing people to commit crimes, by addressing their underlying problems.
"Every sitting of this court that I've been to there's been a magical moment that confirms why we're here," says Wolf. "If you sit in the court room you feel that."
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