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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Traditional Justice

sweat lodge Almost immediately upon contact, European colonizers rejected the traditions of the Aboriginal peoples and went to great lengths to assimilate them into their own way of life. Reserves, residential schools, and enfranchisement were just some of the products of assimilationist policies at the time. As a result of these policies, many Aboriginal peoples experienced a collective sense of loss – never quite fully assimilating with Euro-Canadian, mainstream society – and no longer familiar with their roots and cultures. Lacking the support systems usually provided by family and community, many Aboriginals turned to dangerous substances like drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with the suffering from years of oppression, racism, poverty and marginalization. Crime was a by-product of, and an interconnected part, of a cycle of poverty, family violence, and depression. Traditional justice had existed in Aboriginal communities for many generations, but European newcomers did their best to impose their own conception of justice onto the First Peoples

A fundamental difference exists between the traditional Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian approaches to justice. While Euro-Canadian law stresses punishment and retribution, the Aboriginal approach is restorative. Unlike European law, which focuses on the criminal act itself, traditional Aboriginal law instead considers the intent of a particular crime and examines the ways in which the community can help restore balance and harmony to the individuals involved. Because an offence is viewed as having been committed against an individual and his or her family (as opposed to the state or monarchy), serving time in jail would not restore harmony to the offender or the offended. In fact, jail time is seen as an easy way out; offenders can serve their sentences without ever coming to terms with their actions.

There are many forms of traditional dispute resolution, though almost all stress the importance of community-level mediation and the restoration of balance. In some communities, for example, a crime is framed as a future event, and everyone — including the offender — discusses how such an event would be handled if it were to occur in the future. Blame is not part of the process. Other communities prefer pairing both victims and offenders with Elders, who work together until each person’s spirit is restored and a ceremonial pipe is lit. The most vital aspect of traditional justice involves getting to the root of the imbalance that caused a person to commit the injustice in the first place. Often, this entails dealing with painful events in one’s past, and pushing oneself to learn, forgive, and move on.

The Aboriginal healing movement, which began in the 1970s, saw many return to the teachings of traditional justice. Numerous initiatives, including RCMP Aboriginal constable training programs, Justice of the Peace programs, Native Courtworker programs, and band and reserve-based policing have been launched. In federal and provincial prisons, it is not an uncommon sight to see Elders working with inmates, reuniting them with traditional teachings and helping them to heal. However, Aboriginals continue to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system, especially in the prairie regions. Despite the positive outcomes of the resurrection of traditional teachings, there remains much room for improvement.

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