Grand opening of new Provincial Court in Wagmatcook First Nation

Nova Scotia's first Gladue and Healing to Wellness Court was officially opened and celebrated in Wagmatcook First Nation on June 21, marking National Indigenous Peoples Day and an important step toward reconciliation and improved access to justice in the province.

The Wagmatcook Court also has Provincial and Supreme Court sittings that serve residents of Wagmatcook, Waycobah and Victoria County.

National Pride

The new courthouse is in line with a recommendation from the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Junior prosecution, calling for more Provincial Court sittings on Nova Scotia reserves, and follows the Calls to Action outlined in the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is believed to be the first time a superior court in a Canadian province will hold regular sittings in a First Nations community. The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia (Family Division) had its first sitting there on June 6. It will deal with child protection matters only, to start. The Provincial Court has been sitting once a week since April 4, on Wednesdays, for arraignments, bail hearings, criminal trials and sentencings, both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. The Gladue and Healing to Wellness programs are for Indigenous offenders only.

The new courthouse is located on the first floor of the Wagmatcook Culture & Heritage Centre on Highway 105. For contact information and more details on the Gladue and Healing to Wellness court programs, visit the Courts of Nova Scotia website: courts.ns.ca/Provincial_Court/WagmatcookCourt.htm.

Indigenous people seeking bail or awaiting sentencing will typically have their matter referred to the Gladue Court. A Gladue Court differs from traditional courts by incorporating Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs, and including extensive community input. They also consider broader issues, such as the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. Gladue courts get their name from a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that highlighted concerns about the discrimination against and over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system.

The Wellness to Healing court program attempts to identify and address the root cause of the offending behaviour, and develop individual recovery support plans that links people to services. The court in Wagmatcook will allow Indigenous offenders to accept responsibility for their actions, which is more consistent with Indigenous culture. Similar wellness courts exist in Port Hawkesbury and Amherst. Wagmatcook joins Eskasoni to become the second First Nation community to offer court services on reserve.

The grand opening featured a repatriation ceremony in which an eagle feather was presented to the Hon. Judge Laurie Halfpenny MacQuarrie, as the presiding Provincial Court judge in Wagmatcook. The eagle feather is one of the most sacred and spiritual symbols in First Nations culture, and is used in many traditions in the Indigenous community. It was presented by the family of Donald Marshall Jr. and counsel who represented him in his battle to overturn his wrongful murder conviction.

Both the courtroom design and program models were developed in close consultation with the First Nations community, including the Chief, Council, Elders and local service providers. The Wagmatcook Court has a circular design that is representative of Aboriginal healing circles and reflects a unique approach to justice. The court is also the first superior court in Canada to hold regular sittings in a First Nations community.

Partners in the project include the provincial court of Nova Scotia Judiciary, Wagmatcook and Waycobah First Nations, the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the Public Prosecution Service, Public Prosecution Services Canada, Victoria County and the RCMP.

An archived video webcast of the grand opening is available on the Courts of Nova Scotia website. Go to http://www.courts.ns.ca/Webcasts/webcasts_archive_events.htm.

Further reading:

Grand Opening of the Wagmatcook Court
Aboriginal Affairs/DOJ/Premier's Office | June 21, 2018

Judiciary celebrates grand opening of new courthouse in Wagmatcook First Nation
Executive Office of the Nova Scotia Judiciary | June 21, 2018

Government of Canada congratulates Wagmatcook and We'koqma'q First Nations on courthouse grand opening
Indigenous Services Canada | June 21, 2018

Cape Breton's new Indigenous court sparks interest across Canada: 'I have had calls from coast, to coast, to coast,' says judge
CBC News | June 21, 2018

Wagmatcook celebrates grand opening of courthouse
Cape Breton Post | June 21, 2018 | By Erin Pottie

New Aboriginal Wellness and Gladue Court opens
Port Hawkesbury Reporter | June 26, 2018

Ceremony marks opening of first-of-its kind Indigenous court in Wagmatcook
The Canadian Press / CTV | June 21, 2018  

A few quotes from the grand opening:

Chief Norman Bernard, Wagmatcook First Nation:
"This is the beginning of a new justice experience journey for our people, as identified in the Marshall Inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action. It is a proud day for Mi'kmaq people."

Chief Rod Googoo, We’koqma’q First Nation:
"Today, we as Mi'kmaq are making history with the opening of this court, which happens to be one-of-a-kind here in Canada,” said. “It's an historic day, not only for the Mi'kmaq, but for all the Aboriginal people across Canada. We are a very proud community, here in We'koqma'q, to have partnered with Wagmatcook, the Judiciary and others on this unique court."

Premier Stephen McNeil, also Minister of Aboriginal Affairs:
"This new court represents a historic step forward in supporting Indigenous justice in this province. The Wagmatcook court shows what can be achieved when we collaborate and listen to each other."

The Honourable Judge Laurie Halfpenny MacQuarrie:
“It is an absolute honour and privilege for me to see this First Nations Court open today and to be its presiding judge. This Court has been years in the making; it was borne out of a desire that these communities have local access to justice in a meaningful way and I truly believe we have achieved that goal. My role now is to continue the work the Chiefs and I, along with their Councils, Elders and many others, have started to ensure an Indigenous legal approach to criminal law.”

The Honourable Michael MacDonald, Chief Justice of Nova Scotia:
“This is an incredibly significant day, for many reasons. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made it painfully clear that the justice system in Canada is not working as it should for Indigenous people, especially children. The consultation and collaboration with First Nations leaders to develop this new Court is unprecedented in this province, and will go a long way to ensuring Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs are incorporated at every stage of the court process.”

“The new courthouse also means improved access for Cape Bretoners living in Victoria County. Those residents now have access to court services closer to home, which we know is especially important in rural communities.”

The Honourable Pamela Williams, Chief Judge of the Provincial and Family Courts, and Chair of the province’s Wellness Courts Working Group:
“It is so heartening to see this Court move from a mere concept to reality. Unlike the traditional adversarial approach of the regular criminal courts, wellness court programs, like the ones now available in Wagmatcook, develop and administer a support plan that is unique to the needs of each individual participant, including the distinct racial and cultural needs of the offender.”

Larry Dauphinee, Deputy Warden, Victoria County:
“In addition to addressing Indigenous justice in a manner befitting the Mi’kmaw culture, the Court highlights the successes that can come from collaboration between neighbours. We are pleased the first Gladue Court in Nova Scotia is located here, in the local community.”

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