Nova Scotia has become the first province in Canada to open a superior court on a reserve that will incorporate Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs.
“We can’t just talk about reconciliation. We have to act on it,” Mi’kmaq Grand Keptin Andrew Denny said Thursday during an opening ceremony at Wagmatcook First Nation in Cape Breton. “That’s why this court is here today.”
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy called the court “groundbreaking.”
“We believe that this is the first time in the history of this country that a superior court has sat in this context,” he told the crowd of Indigenous chiefs, judges, politicians and community members. “Nobody else has done this. No other province in Canada.”
The court’s opening, which fell on National Indigenous Peoples Day, is significant in a province with a dark history of failing Indigenous Peoples.
“Nova Scotia is the province that failed Donald Marshall Jr.,” Kennedy said. “Our justice system, this justice system, we did that great wrong. But it is Donald Marshall’s legacy that inspires us to do better.”
Marshall was a Mi’kmaq man who was wrongly convicted of murder. He served 11 years in prison.
“A justice system steeped in racism let Donald Marshall Jr. down at every stage,” Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald said.
“We cannot, judges, ever forget that. Those who work in our justice system can never forget that.”
The Nova Scotia Judiciary said the court in Cape Breton will house a provincial court and the family division of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
The creation of the court is in line with a 1989 Marshall Inquiry recommendation calling for more provincial court sittings on Nova Scotia reserves, as well as calls to action outlined in the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.
“This is truly an historic day for the Mi’kmaq and the province of Nova Scotia,” Wagmatcook First Nation Chief Norman Bernard said.
“It’s an example of reconciliation with Indigenous people through the courts and will reflect Mi’kmaq values.”
The Wagmatcook courthouse inside the Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre offers programs including a Gladue court, which refers to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that requires courts to take Aboriginal circumstances into account when handing down a sentence.
It also offers a healing and wellness court, dedicated to Indigenous offenders who plead guilty or accept responsibility for their actions and are at a high risk to reoffend.
“This court program will look at the underlying factors that contribute to the person coming into conflict with the law,” the judiciary said on its website.
“The sentencing process is delayed approximately 12 to 24 months to allow time for the offender to proceed through this healing plan.”
Judge Laurie Halfpenny-MacQuarrie, the presiding judge at the new court, said that in 2015 she became fed up with issuing non-appearance arrest warrants for people from the Wagmatcook area who were forced to travel to Port Hawkesbury for proceedings – an hour’s drive away.
She said she met with local Aboriginal chiefs in April 2016 to discuss solutions for the issue, and the idea for the Wagmatcook First Nation courthouse was born.
“We discussed what that would look like, and it would be a court that’s philosophy would be Indigenous law, and applying that here at a local level,” Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said in an interview before the ceremony Thursday.
Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said they wanted to ensure the court would be a full-service legal centre in the community, with spaces for legal aid, Crown attorneys, interview rooms and holding cells, as well as housing the Indigenous legal programs.
The court will sit once a week on Wednesdays.