Retired Judge Cunliffe Barnett believes First Nations elders should have a voice in the courts.
Since 2012 Barnett has trained elders in Kamloops and Duncan for a First Nations Court and was in Williams Lake last week leading a three-day workshop with elders from some of the Tsilhqot’in communities, as well as from Alberta and Victoria, aimed at creating a First Nations Elders Court Council.
“The workshop was intended to bring some of the elders from the Tsilhqot’in up to date and get them to have a good understanding of some of the Supreme Court decisions so that they can go to court and tell judges about some of the information that a sentencing judge should know,” Barnett said.
For the workshop, he put together a binder for the elders that covers several things, including the entire April 23, 1999 Gladue decision, which advises that lower courts should consider an Aboriginal offender’s background in sentencing decisions.
Barnett served as a Provincial Court Judge in Williams Lake from 1973 to 1997 and as Deputy Judge in Yukon and Northwest Territories from 1981 to 2011.
“I was called an Indian lover and it wasn’t meant as a compliment,” Barnett told the Tribune, noting there were at least three petitions calling for his removal from the bench when he served in Williams Lake.
Retired Crown Counsel Rod Hawkins is a member of the local restorative justice group pressing the provincial government to establish a First Nations court for Williams Lake and area.
“A small committee is doing the leg work,” he said, noting he has been working with Jim World, a retired high school counsellor, Dave Dickson, manager of community safety, and Sarah Jackman, executive director of Punky Lake Wilderness Camp Society.
Hawkins ran the local legal aid office for 17 years.
He then joined Crown Counsel in 1992, where he was made administrator and worked there for 20 years.
The plan, Hawkins said, is to secure funding and then inform local judges of Provincial and Supreme Court that there is a cohort of elders who are available.
“We will pester the system to involve them,” he said.
He also plans to take the elders on a tour of a courtroom to show them how it works.
If a First Nations Court gets established in Williams Lake, then those trained elders may become part of it, he said.
“Regardless, having the elders learn about the courts will be a good thing,” he added. “They will take their skills, ambitions and experience of the legal system to their communities.”
Toosey elder and retired educator Joan Gentles said she was asked by several people to attend the workshop.
“I am happy to be here,” Gentles said. “I did a lot of work with Cunliffe Barnett. He is the one that helped make some positive changes for our people going through the justice system.”
It was through her work assisting and interpreting people going through the courts, that Barnett encouraged Gentles to apply to be a Native court worker, she said, which she did for three and a half years.
“I saw the changes and open mind that Barnett had and when I saw that he was teaching this program I felt I needed to learn some more from him.”
Gentles said she left her job as a court worker eventually because she felt the courts were not helping people to heal and returned to university so she could go into education.
Jackman said having three or four elders who are familiar with the community, family or the individual, will be a great asset to the court system.
“They can say they know why this keeps happening so maybe we can put something into the sentencing plan or the healing plan that will help them to stop reoffending and start healing whatever trauma is causing the initial harm,” she said.
Barnett said engaging elders in a meaningful way in the process can’t help but be a good thing.