A community in the Cariboo Chilcotin hopes a new program it’s developing will help combat the over representation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system.
“There are 14 prolific offenders identified in the Williams Lake area, eight of those are from this community,” said Kaitlyn O’Toole, justice worker for Tl’etinqox First Nation. “I think that’s a symptom of a criminal justice system that isn’t working. We want to hold community members accountable whereas the criminal justice system is really just punitive. There’s not reparation of harm.”
O’Toole, 26, grew up in the community of Horsefly, B.C. and is a recent Bachelor of Social Work graduate from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.
She was a practicum student at Tl’etinqox in January 2017, so when the community successfully obtained $70,000 from B.C.’s civil forfeiture fund, Chief Joe Alphonse said he jumped at the opportunity to hire O’Toole on a one-year contract.
It’s the first time Tl’etinqox has ever had funding for justice work, Alphonse said, noting the goal of the program is to be part of a solution.
“You look right across Canada at the First Nations population in jails,” he added. “They are following each other right into jail and for some community members, it’s almost like a right of passage. It’s sad that we are in such a state.”
Alphonse said the community has been looking for help and working with groups to tackle the gang issue and everything going on between gangs.
“People think because the IOs are from Soda Creek and the 712s are from Anaham that we don’t get along, but as political leaders we do get along and we do not want to see our young people fighting.”
As a non-Indigenous person, O’Toole said it was important to establish a community justice committee to ensure the decisions she makes reflect the community.
Committee members include representation from the health department, a wellness co-ordinator, two band council members and a First Nations policing member.
They meet bi-weekly, to discuss issues with relation to clients, discuss the needs they see in the community, gaps and areas that need work, O’Toole said.
”It’s not only about solutions but to gain a sense of what the community defines as the problem. We do prevention workshops around the community, we do intervention work with community members who are in trouble with the law and then we are also doing reintegration work where we work with band members who are incarcerated and are looking to reintegrate back into the community.”
There is also a focus on youth and adults who are at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.
“We visited community members in jail in November and we supported a band member through a parole hearing at a federal institute,” O’Toole said.
Alphonse said when people come out of prison they should be better people, not better criminals, and the community has a right to know what kinds of programs people are able to access while incarcerated.
Gleaning from a traditional story about two fighting wolves, Alphonse said a grandson asks his elder which wolf is winning, the good wolf or the bad wolf.
“‘Which wolf are you feeding?’ the elder asks. For us, if we want to reduce crime, then why do we keep talking about youth gangs and not talking about the youth who are doing well and building them up to support them by giving them the tools to be confident. If gang members and others are trying to recruit they will run out of people to recruit because all we will be producing are leaders.”
O’Toole said they are working with one former gang member presently, who has a label attached to his police file.
“We are doing some advocacy work with him to get that label removed because the community doesn’t feel that it’s necessary. Often we are coming up against systems that are a lot bigger than us, so that’s where one of our struggles has been. We are creating something new and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
Through her own observations, O’Toole has noticed a “national narrative” around First Nations people and their issues, she added.
“I think it’s so important to focus on the strengths and resiliency that are so inherent in this community and any other First Nations community. In social work we call it strength-based practice, but this is putting it in action.”
Last year the community launched a youth leaders program to recognize and encourage youth, and Alphonse said they’ve also hired youth workers.
“We just purchased property totally off-grid at Alexis Lake and plan on running a two-month program this coming summer,” he said.
O’Toole said almost every client she has worked with so far has had some sort of interaction with the child welfare system.
“I would venture to say that every client I’ve worked with has experienced trauma in some way,” she added.
“So many First Nations people who are involved with the criminal justice system are often involved with foster care beforehand and the youth justice system and it ladders into this whole life pattern. And once you are in there, you just become a better criminal.”