Tribal justice comes to Canada's reservations

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The Independent Online
COURTROOMS, long distrusted by native Americans as a symbol of Western law, are being replaced on Canada's reserves by "sentencing circles" made up of tribal elders. Instead of going to jail, tribal miscreants have been banished to a deserted island, ordered to sit for hours in a purifying "sweat lodge" or sentenced to chop wood.

Sentencing circles are solemn ceremonies attended by the chief and elders of a tribe. "They are very, very emotional. Everyone has their say," said Judge David Arnot, the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan province. "Sentencing circles are a very novel way of approaching crime."

In the province of Alberta, a recent circle passed judgment on Jarvis Spear Chief, a teenage member of the Peigan band accused of attacking a fellow band member. The accused was told to do "community service" for the elders of the tribe for several weeks and to temper his anger.

Most circles, whose judgments bear the same weight as a sentence in court, reach a decision by consensus. Some are preceded by sweat lodges, a traditional purification ceremony which takes place in a sauna-like hut with hot coals.

Some circles, held on remote reservations, take place in traditional languages such as Cree and Sioux, and translation problems have arisen. For example the word for "rape" translates as "wrestling" in some aboriginal languages.

But Judge Arnot and his colleagues, eager to reduce the huge numbers of aboriginal people in prison, have welcomed the reintroduction of traditional punishments. "The circles give First Nations communities self-esteem and the authority to handle their own problems themselves," he said.

The revolution in the Canadian aboriginal justice system has been hailed as a model of "restorative justice" around the world. Chief constables from Britain have met the Canadian judges to discuss whether elements of the new sentencing system can be brought here.

Jail has not proved an effective answer to cutting down on crime. Many reserves have high unemployment, crime rates and levels of alcoholism, and some people prefer to stay in jail, especially during the harsh winters. Judges say some commit crimes they know will carry prison sentences and then turn themselves in.

Critics of the circles believe that they are a soft option which has led to seasoned criminals avoiding jail terms.

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