Brantford’s new Indigenous Persons Court: a community effort that meets a local challenge

Pictured above left to right:  Brant County Crown Attorney Robert Kindon, Justice Kevin Sherwood, Six Nations community elder Jan Longboat and Justice Gethin Edward, holding a wampum belt, symbolizing the desire to care for all who enter the Brantford Indigenous Persons Court. 

By Robert Blake

When the possibility of opening an Indigenous Persons Court* in Brantford was first mentioned about one year, ago, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) immediately offered its support.

The Indigenous Persons Court is designed to handle the cases of Aboriginal people who have been charged with a criminal offence and propose sentences using a restorative justice approach aligned with Aboriginal culture and traditions. All accused persons who are self-identifying Aboriginal persons – Indian (status and non-status), Métis and Inuit – can choose to have their matter heard by this specialized court. It currently accepts guilty pleas and sentences offenders.

The need for a local court for Aboriginal persons was clear.

LAO-staffed Gladue courts in Toronto, London and Sarnia had proven successful.  LAO has an ongoing commitment to improving legal aid services for Ontario’s Aboriginal people. And the largest First Nation in Canada is located just outside Brantford. While Aboriginal people only make up two per cent of Ontario’s population, they are, sadly, overrepresented within the criminal justice system – particularly Aboriginal youth – and are also overrepresented in Children’s Aid Society matters.

Most significant of all, there is currently a dire province-wide shortage of Gladue report services in Ontario. These reports, prepared in advance of sentencing at an Indigenous Persons Court, are in-depth examinations of offenders’ backgrounds. They consider issues of abuse, addiction and intergenerational trauma related to residential school experiences. They offer judges a complete understanding of native offenders’ circumstances.

LAO’s Hamilton-Kitchener District staff lawyers, paralegals and administrators offered their time and resources to help in the planning of the specialized court. As a result, when Brantford’s Gladue court gets underway on January 17th, free legal services will be available to all eligible Aboriginal clients.

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The Brantford courthouse: home to a new Indigenous Persons Court.

At first point of contact, self-identifying Aboriginal clients will be advised by LAO staff of their option to proceed in the Indigenous Persons Court. Specially-trained duty counsel lawyers and paralegals, some of whom are Aboriginal, will represent eligible clients on guilty pleas, provide referrals to agencies that can help develop the client’s rehabilitation plan, and address Gladue principles before the court.

This initiative would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of many people.  Ontario Court Justice Gethin Edward was tireless in his efforts to bring an Indigenous Persons Court to Brantford. He, along with Justice Kevin Sherwood and local defense lawyer Sarah Dover, were the driving forces behind getting it off the ground. LAO representatives participated in regular meetings to gather community feedback and build consensus among representatives from Six Nations and New Credit, Six Nations Police, Victim Witness Assistance Program, Court Services, Youth Family Court workers and other local stakeholders.

I, along with everyone else involved in this initiative, am aware that enhancing services for Aboriginal clients is an essential part of expanding access to justice for low-income Ontarians. I hope that a court devoted to Aboriginal issues results in shorter wait times for the completion of Gladue reports.  And I am delighted to mark the opening of this new court in Brantford. It will be a learning process for all involved, and I am confident that it will be a great success.

Robert Blake is Legal Aid Ontario’s Manager of Duty Counsel Services for the Tri-counties

*Note: This piece originally ran with the previous name used for this court, Aboriginal Peoples Court. It has been updated to reflect recent changes.