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Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, is hoping to expand First Nations courts.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Tsilhqot'in National Government, in British Columbia, is the first instance of a recognition of aboriginal title to a territory. But aboriginal title is not simply sovereignty or independence from Canada.

In particular, the Tsilhqot'in government, together with another group, the Sto:lo Tribal Council, is looking to the B.C. government for institutions that can help improve the court system.

Chief Joe Alphonse, the tribal chairman of Tsilhqot'in, is worried about violent crime in the tribe's territory. There are violent gangs in Tsilhqot'in, around Williams Lake, B.C. He is worried about his people, and he has approached the province's Ministry of Justice for help, as emerged from a ministry briefing note obtained through access to information. He has also had some initial contact with Chief Justice Thomas Crabtree, the chief judge of the B.C. Provincial Court.

Mr. Alphonse has sensibly said, "Right now, you throw somebody in jail for six months, and they just become better and better at their craft, because you're enabling them to become educated by real criminals."

There are already four specialized First Nations courts in different parts of B.C. They are essentially sentencing hearings, only available if the accused person has pleaded guilty. Practices vary whether they deal with indictable offences, or only with cases in which there is no risk of a jail sentence.

These courts are usually available only once a month, and there appears to be a need for greater frequency – as well as for regions like Tsilhqot'in where there are none.

As yet, nobody has studied whether these First Nations courts have actually produced better results – such as less indigenous crime in the relevant areas, or diminished recidivism among aboriginals. But the provincial Ministry of Justice says it will soon publish a "specialized court strategy" to develop more such courts, figure out what is effective (or not) and perhaps establish more consistency.

Whatever the outcome, this is a worthwhile initiative, both for indigenous peoples and for courts, police and everyone else. Other provinces should take note.

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