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One of five new Indigenous Justice Centres (IJCs) across the province has opened its doors in xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ territories — responding to an urgent need to address the harmful impacts of the colonial justice system.
The BC First Nations Justice Council (BCFNJC) unveiled the transformed space, which was formerly the Vancouver Sun building, on Thursday with Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw Councillor Sxwixwtn Wilson Williams, Premier David Eby and Attorney General Niki Sharma in attendance.
According to BCFNJC, there will be an initial focus on tackling the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples who are incarcerated — currently at a staggering 35 per cent despite making up nearly 6 per cent of the population.
The BCFNJC works with lawyers whose primary practice areas include criminal defense and child protection, which means any Indigenous person in “British Columbia” who needs a lawyer in a criminal justice or child protection matter can seek help, free of charge, from any IJC.
The province has funded $44 million over three years for the establishment and long-term operation of 15 IJCs. BCFNJC chair Puglid Kory Wilson said the organization has so far been able to establish five new physical centres, and one virtual, within a span of 12 months.
This includes locations in “Chilliack,” “Merritt,” “Prince George” and “Prince Rupert.” Four more centres are set to open before the end of winter in “Surrey”, “Victoria”, “Nanaimo” and “Kelowna,” and an additional six smaller IJCs before the end of the year.
“What we have accomplished with the expansion of the IJC network in B.C. is astonishing,” Wilson said in a statement.
“I want to thank the provincial government for recognizing the dire need to correct the harms inflicted by a broken system, and for working with us at this rapid pace to create safe, welcoming spaces in communities that place decision-making back into the hands of communities and provide Indigenous people with access to critical legal and wraparound supports and services.”
Amanda Carling, who is CEO of the newly opened ICJ in “Vancouver,” said an important part of the function of the ICJs will be to ensure the experiences of families who are actively in the child “welfare” system, are integrated with the policy work and strategic litigation that the centres take on.
“Not acting in silos, or treating one individual case as a discrete instance,” said Carling, who is Red River Métis. “But really aggregating for the benefit of the colonial courts to understand where there are patterns of experiences by community members, so that we can change the factors that are leading to those patterns.”
Carling says when she attended law school in Ontario in 2012, Indigenous law was never mentioned. “I never would have expected less than 15 years later I’d get to work in an Indigenous space alongside First Nations leadership to do a justice strategy,” said Carling. “It’s a small miracle.”
The new space is bright, warm and inviting. In the lobby, glass sound-proof booths with frosted stencil outlines of Coast Salish art provide a space for quiet, confidential conversations.
Wilson anticipates working closely with neighbouring organizations to tackle issues faced by local urban Indigenous communities.
“It’s about revitalizing Indigenous ways of knowing and the traditions of our system,” she said. “And today, we definitely find hope and excitement knowing that we have several community organizations, the First Nations whose territory we’re on, the various business leaders and other groups in Vancouver, that will work with us to ensure that this justice centre is successful.”
The BCFNJC is the only Indigenous justice council of its kind, globally. The council represents First Nations in “British Columbia” on justice related issues, with the goal of transforming the colonial justice system to create better outcomes for Indigenous peoples.
Created in 2016 through a partnership between the BC Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the three groups collectively form the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC). Their mission is to support the well-being of future generations by transforming the status quo, upholding self-determination, reclaiming legal traditions and addressing systemic injustice.
The FNLC is comprised of six directors, including Wilson (Kwakwaka’wakw), Chief Lydia Hwitsum (Cowichan Tribes), Nees Ma’Outa Clifford White (Gitxaala Nation), Andrea Hilland (Nuxalk Nation) Cloy-e-iis Dr. Judith Sayers (Hupacasath Nation), and Xoyet thet Boyd Peters (Sts’ailes Nation). Together, they help guide and support the implementation of the BC First Nations Justice Strategy, of which there are 25 strategies with 43 lines of action to reform the current justice system and restore Indigenous legal traditions.
This ambitious roadmap was signed by the BCFNJC and the province in March 2020. The 43 actions are divided into two paths. The first is to reform the current justice system through actions such as reducing youth incarceration, improving the safety for women and girls, providing culturally safe justice services, and the standardization of, and increased access to Gladue reports. The second pathway restores First Nation legal traditions through the rebuilding of institutions, the completion of all 15 IJCs, revitalizing First Nations legal order and growing community justice programs.
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