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TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, B.C.)–“It is a scandal that Chief Nottaway spent Christmas in jail for peaceful civil disobedience to demand governments live up to their responsibilities,” said Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May at a January 7 rally in support of the jailed Customary Chief in Ottawa.
Chief Benjamin Nottaway of the Barriere Lake First Nation was sentenced to two months' imprisonment for peacefully proclaiming rights to traditional territories in Western Quebec.
In 2001, the government of Canada reneged on the binding 1991 Trilateral Agreement, a sustainable development and resource co-management agreement between Canada and the Barriere Lake First Nation.
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation are demanding that the government uphold signed agreements and the right to choose their Customary Chief and council.
In March 2008, the federal government imposed a council on the Barriere Lake First Nation and, in November, Customary Chief Nottaway was sentenced to jail.
Although the incarceration of Nottaway may be a scandal, it is not out of the ordinary in Canada. According to many Indigenous people, the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations people is part of an ongoing racist colonization process. There is a movement in Quebec to revive the traditional Native court.
In 1999, the Supreme Court judgement R. v. Gladue noted that a 1976-77 study of admissions to Saskatchewan’s correctional system “contains findings that should shock the conscience of everyone in Canada.”
The Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada reported on November 16, 2006, that whereas the number of federal prisoners in Canada decreased by 12.5 per cent, the number of Indigenous peoples in federal prisons increased by 21.7 per cent. During the same period, the number of Indigenous women imprisoned federally shot up by 74.2 per cent.
Furthermore, it reported that Indigenous Peoples were overrepresented in maximum security, placed in segregation more often than non-Indigenous prisoners, were more likely to be turned down for parole and endure longer periods of incarceration.
At Vancouver Island University's Shq'apthut (a gathering place), all Indigenous Peoples I spoke with saw racism underlying the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous Peoples in comparison to other Canadians.
Winston Wuttunee, a Nehiyaw (Cree), identified institutionalization fostered by the Indian Residential School System and wardship as linked to high incarceration rates.
Douglas Blanchard, an advocate for the Metis Nation, pointed to the carry-over effect from the foster care system (“the child grab of the '60s”), which he sees as having morphed from the Indian Residential School program. He said many incarcerated Indigenous Peoples had gone through the foster-care system.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser found in her May 2008 report that children on reserves across Canada are at very high risk to wind up in under-funded, poorly tracked foster care.
Jaime Seaweed, an aspiring lawyer from the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation, views the justice system as archaic and needing change. “The whole system is corrupt.” Seaweed calls for traditional healing—for everyone, she adds—restorative justice within communities and better access to lawyers.
R. v. Gladue did acknowledge the “principles of restorative justice and the needs of the parties involved.” It noted the importance of community-based sanctions for Indigenous Peoples and called on sentencing judges to take into account “the unique circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.”
"There are too many of our people in the prison institutions," Hereditary Mig'maq Chief Gary Metallic in Quebec told The Dominion.
"My life work has been in the reviving and reassertion of our ancient traditional governments and our jurisdictions," he said. "One very important area that we identified is the need to revive our Native courts to counter the newcomers' courts that have been responsible for the illegal colonization of our lands and resources, and...incarceration of our peoples during the colonization process.
"The Mig'maq of our 7th District in Gaspe were fortunate in the '90s to have Dr. Bruce Clark work with us in the revival of our traditional Native court, called the Confederated Native Court, which consisted of four nations: the Mig'maq, Algonquin, Passamaquoddy and the Mohegan Nation; together we sat and deliberated on the illegal takeover of our lands and resources, and passed judgement which was titled The Confederated Native Court Judgement."
Chief Metallic says his group is closely watching the Barriere Lake First Nation case and had informed the judge and court that they “had no legal jurisdiction over unceded Algonquin territory and therefore the traditional people charged in the blockades had in fact never broken any laws when protecting their traditional territory.”
Metallic expects chicanery from the Quebec legal system, but the Confederated Native Court intends to reveal Quebec's “pretended jurisdiction” upon unceded Algonquin territory. The next step will be an impartial, third-party adjudication process in a neutral international forum to render “an unbiased ruling based on the evidence before it.”
"We will no longer be on the receiving end of their racist and foreign judicial systems that have been responsible for the illegal colonization of our peoples," says Metallic.
"Perhaps by reintroducing our Native courts we can stop the over-incarceration of our peoples within the prison system."
Kim Petersen is the Original People's Editor at The Dominion.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.