Helen Flamand is confident that a series of justice-system reforms in the strategic-planning stage for Bigstone Cree Nation, recently funded with $100,000 from the Alberta government, will have a positive impact.
After all, says the band’s former justice-technician-turned-new-project-initiatives coordinator, that has been the case with the Bigstone’s restorative justice program, initiated in 2015.
Although no data has been collected to tell how often someone in the restorative justice program reoffends compared to those who go through the conventional court system, Flamand said sitting in Alberta Provincial Court, which carries out its proceedings in Wabasca every Thursday, the impact is obvious.
“We look at the docket. The ones who have gone before in the regular prosecutorial stream are back time and time again. I can honestly say that few of ours have reoffended. The majority of our clients go on to be excellent community members, gainfully employed,” she said.
The difference between what Bigstone offers and what the conventional justice system offers is the approach.
“We deal with the problem behind the problem. We deal with our clients from a trauma-informed perspective. So, if alcohol and drugs are the presenting issues—which they are in most of our matters that come to the courts—we see what’s pushing that self-medicating behaviour,” said Flamand.
Now, with the recently received dollars from the province through the Proceeds of Crime Fund program, Bigstone Cree plans to build on the success of the restorative justice program.
In October, the court worker program will kick off.
Flamand said they had to work hard to get the approval for the program, which is funded by both the Alberta and federal governments.
“We fought our way back. We were denied at first. We fought our way back,” she said.
“Our chief (Silas Yellowknee) was very instrumental in garnering those audiences with the (former) Justice minister (Kaycee Madu). The Justice minister came to our community last July, I think. He sat down with us. He heard us. And made some recommendations that we fulfilled and kind of paved the way for our matter to get back on the agenda.”
Now, Bigstone Cree has $30,000 to go toward policy development for the court worker program, which Flamand explains is to “help Indigenous people involved in the criminal justice system to obtain fair, equitable and culturally relevant treatment within the courts.”
Flamand says the court worker program was prioritized because both she and fellow Bigstone Justice manager Ray Yellowknee are former court supervisors.
“We look at any given docket on any given Thursday and 99 per cent.. our people are appearing on the docket. I always say a docket is very reflective of the state of our communities. And on the docket we see very much domestic assaults, impaired driving. These are social justice issues we need to tackle,” said Flamand.
She also points out that Bigstone Cree has an “excellent working relationship” with the judges and Crown prosecutors in Slave Lake, who make the 90-minute trip north to serve Wabasca.
Flamand credits that strong relationship for the 75 clients that have been shifted to Bigstone’s restorative justice program and says the program will be expanding.
“We meet with (the judges and prosecutors) on a regular basis and try to keep them updated on what we are doing,” said Flamand.
Among the other initiatives that have gotten the nod from Chief Yellowknee and council for strategic planning is the development of the Nation’s own on-reserve courthouse. That courthouse is tied into the development of the Nation’s laws, which would be enforced by a First Nation’s police force, said Flamand.
Nation laws—Flamand refuses to call them bylaws, “because that speaks to the Indian Act”— would be reflective of Bigstone’s customs and traditions. Such laws could not be prosecuted through the conventional justice system and would not be enforceable by the RCMP.
Bigstone is considering three new models of policing, says Flamand.
Bigstone, which is located in Treaty 8 territory, could become part of the police force that Treaty 8 is considering.
There “have been talks” with the Lakeshore Regional Police Service, which is responsible for policing the western end of the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council Territory, including the Sawridge, Swan River, Driftpile Cree, Sucker Creek and Kapaweno First Nations.
A satellite office could be opened in Wabasca to service that community, as well as Calling Lake and Chipewyan Lake. Lakeshore police service has been in operation since 2018.
Bigstone is also considering creating its own stand-alone police force.
Flamand says these ideas were communicated to Madu, who at the time was promoting an Alberta police force to replace the RCMP.
“I think he knows the issues that exist on our First Nations and the need for our Nation to examine not only the provincial police force but other police forces as well,” said Flamand.
A healing to wellness court model based on a therapeutic court is also being considered.
“We’re looking at that trauma that has permeated our communities,” said Flamand, noting the impacts of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
Therapeutic courts address social and personal issues underlying or causing a person’s criminal behaviour. Saskatchewan Provincial Court has established a number of therapeutic courts over the past years. Although Alberta Provincial Court has yet to establish therapeutic courts, Alberta started a Drug Treatment Court in 2005.
Other initiatives being considered include a peace officer/bushranger program, hosting a community-wide justice conference and delivering on public legal education.
Community engagement has yet to happen, Flamand says, and that will wait until after the band’s chief and council elections in September.
She admits a wholesale change in chief and council always presents a concern for every band department.
“I can say that we’re very well-established, we’re well-positioned in moving forward with the province. I think chief and council will be very supportive of our initiatives moving forward,” she said.
As for accomplishing all these changes, Flamand says they won’t happen quickly, and it won’t happen without considerably more funding. But having already established relationships with the conventional justice system and Alberta Justice will help pave the way.
“We know it’s going to take a lot of patience,” she said. “Going forward these are initiatives that are well thought out, well-researched and have proven to work in other First Nation communities.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.