National Indigenous History Month started off in Williams Lake with a 2.5 year anniversary celebration for Williams Lake Indigenous Court on Friday, June 2.
Administered by Yeqox Nilin Justice Society in cooperation with Crown Counsel, the court has graduated seven individuals who have gone through the process and completed their sanctions.
Another seven people are in the process now.
One of the graduates is Donna-Lee Fox, a mom of two young daughters.
She spoke at the anniversary celebration, recalling how she had made some very bad decisions in her life, but was fortunate enough to be a part of the Indigenous Court program because her husband is originally from the Cariboo Chilcotin.
“I was used to the regular court procedures,” she said. “You don’t really get a chance to speak for yourself and about the social and environmental factors that played a role in what you committed.”
Describing the Indigenous Court as close-knit, she said her first meeting with provincial court Judge Linda Thomas and the elders made her want to do better.
“I was emotional but it got me to get in touch with my Indigenous roots which I had lost over the years.”
It made an impact and she hopes others will have the opportunity to go through it too and more nations will implement the program.
“It made me into a better person and touched me in a way I cannot really explain. I was at very rock bottom and I did not see myself getting out of it and now it has pushed me.”
Thanking all the elders she said it was great to return and see everyone.
After she spoke, she received a standing ovation.
Retired community safety manager Dave Dickson said it was a bittersweet day.
His late wife Sandra Dickson was one of the people, who along with himself, was involved with restorative justice in Williams Lake that worked toward having the Indigenous Court established.
He said even though Sandra was from Spuzzum First Nation, she was accepted by the Indigenous Court as an elder.
A table at the front at the celebration Friday honouring the court elders included a photograph of Sandra.
Dickson provided the court’s history.
“I remember being at Thompson Rivers University one night with restorative justice and seeing some sanctions go through and I said ‘I think we need to do better,”” he said, adding former Tsideldel Chief Irvin Charleyboy said the people who made trangsressions needed to be held accountable by First Nations.
In 2009, three members of the restorative justice team Rod Hawkins, Jim World and Dickson started looking earnestly at developing an Indigenous court, and Dickson said they received blessing from former Insp. Warren Brown when he was with the Williams Lake RCMP detachment.
Over the next few years the team gathered material but realized they were three white people trying to get an Indigenous Court started. They met with former Punky Lake Wilderness Society executive director Sarah Jackman and partnered with her.
Many community meetings were held with elders across the region and eventually Punky Lake became Yeqox Nilin Justice Society with a new executive director. Retired provincial court judge Cunliffe Barnett was brought in to do some training for the court.
The COVID pandemic put things on the back burner, but a soft launch occurred and the court opened in December 2020.
WLFN Chief Willie Sellars said he wanted to hold up the hard work of everyone involved, saying it has been a collective of communities in the Cariboo Chilcotin.
“An elder told me we are setting a standard. We need to credit the elders and communities they represent.”
Esket Chief Fred Robbins thanked the elders as well and recalled going to observe Indigenous Court in Merritt.
There he met a young man who was going down the “wrong path quickly,” who he told ‘you are doing what everyone expects you to do in mainstream society,’”
Robbins asked the young man what he wanted and later the elders called him and thanked him because the short conversation had changed the young man’s path. He had arrived for Indigenous Court wearing a blazer and tie and showed respect to the elders.
Robbins said the Indigenous Court represents true reconciliation.
“These people care enough about our people to support them in a positive way.”
Cariboo Chilcotin Métis Association president Marlene Swears said when she arrived in Williams Lake 50 years ago, she saw very little recognition of Indigenous people.
As one of the court’s elders, she said it is an honour to be part of a system that is inclusive and provides sound and safe solutions .
Over the years she has witnessed many people become self-destructive. In the future she hopes not to see that but rather more and more people making healthy choices.
Caroline Charleyboy of the Tsilhqot’in Women’s Council said sometimes elders will spend an entire year with the person who receives sentencing.
“It takes such diversity to come together to make this happen,” she said.
Doreen Grinder, also with the women’s council, said she believes the region is fortunate to have the court.
“We always talk about unity and I think we are stronger and bigger when we all work together.”
Tsilhqot’in National Government tribal chair Chief Joe Alphonse said the Indigenous Court is a major step toward a full court system which he would like to see in the future.
“We have to have the strength and the leadership to stand up and be proud of who we are as Indigenous people. Don’t let anybody intimidate you,” Alphonse said.
The event lasted about four hours, included a lunch, a pipe ceremony led by Chief Robbins, David Johnson and David Archie and a recorded message from Honourable David Lametti and Attorney General Niki Sharma.