Inuit Women and the Nunavut Justice System
When considering the NSDC recommendations regarding community justice committees collectively with those regarding JPs, it is clear the NSDC is promoting a new system whereby the justice committees and JPs will be the "nucleus" of the justice system for the community. For example, as noted in the JP discussion, the NSDC proposes that the committees and JPs together screen all cases and determine which route each case should take—determining whether it should be a matter dealt with by the court, a JP or the committee. This is a departure insofar as the RCMP have tended to be the community representative on justice matters with JPs working under the guise of RCMP officers.
The nature of the justice committees’ work, as proposed by the NSDC, is rooted in traditional approaches and responses to problems in the community. The committee is promoted as a body that can counsel, discipline and provide activities for wrongdoers in a way that allows a "traditional approach" to be used in "modern times."
The NSDC views the increased use of community based justice committees as a means of ensuring local people have a greater say and control over justice matters in the communities, and can perform their role in ways which respect traditional values and beliefs. This, in the words of Chair Erkloo, is a means to ensuring that
“the Nunavut justice system can bring peace to Inuit.” Providing Inuit with the ability to regain control over their affairs in this way also has the potential effect of facilitating a more efficient handling of matters, and ultimately a quicker resolution of issues.
The work of the NSDC brings the fundamental conflict of Inuit approaches to justice and the punitive nature of the existing justice system to the fore. The approach taken by the NSDC is a positive step towards reflecting Inuit values of restoring harmony and peace within the community rather than punishing an individual for a crime committed against the state. As noted in its report, the NSDC strives to achieve this by keeping one goal in mind,
"Wherever possible offenders must be kept in their community". This is best achieved, it is thought,
"… by giving more responsibility to Community Justice Committees and Justices of the Peace." The NSDC also recommends expanding the sentencing options of committees, as it did for JPs, when dealing with matters involving first time offenders of serious offences and repeat offenders cases.
This is a clear shift from the ideological framework of the Euro-Canadian justice system. For the NSDC, incarceration is no longer the only means to respond to criminal activity.
Certainly, improvements in the technical administration of justice and approaches to the justice system that are culturally sensitive would benefit all people who encounter the justice system in Nunavut. However, reforms which meet the aspirations of Inuit for a culturally sensitive approach to justice may still fall short of delivering a satisfying experience of justice for Inuit women. Specifically this will be so, if the reforms fail to consider the compounding disadvantage experienced by Inuit women and the ways in which race, gender, age, sexual orientation, geographical proximity, and mental or physical ability might converge to affect the needs of Inuit women who come into contact with the justice system.
The NSDC recommendation to have committees deal with
“more serious matters including domestic assault” is based on the NSDC conference participants’ view that
“the community knows more about what is wrong than someone from the outside and can make more effective recommendations for rehabilitation and healing.”
A credible resolution of these more serious matters by community justice committees presumes that the committee is truly reflective of the community and that participation in the resolution processes of the committee is voluntary. The “voluntary” nature of a victim’s participation in a community justice initiative is questionable for many Inuit women.
The potential for a victim to feel pressured to participate in such a committee is great. When the community, including the accused and the victims, are given the choice between the outside Euro-Canadian justice system and their “own,” the pressure to choose their own system will be great.
Those choosing the existing system are perceived as not supporting “their own” system. This has the effect of further alienating women and places pressure on them, making it difficult for them to choose the existing system.
In Inuit communities, many people are related. These family and kinship lines impact severely upon a victim if her abusive partner is related to a powerful family or leader. Women and children may therefore be silenced and not believed when they speak about their abuse. If they do speak out, they are often blamed.
Pauktuutit and others have challenged how committees are structured. In particular, controversies have arisen regarding the range of the “community” members represented on these committees. The controversies appear to be rooted in the fundamental value differences between the committee members and members of these marginalized groups associated with such factors as age, gender, and religion.
For example, community-based initiatives provide a role for elders to work one on one with the offender. However, as noted in the discussion regarding JPs, there are concerns that community justice committees will put elders in the awkward position of judging the offender. Again, as noted in the discussion regarding JPs, there may also be conflicts between an elder’s values and those of other members of the community, particularly women. Some women have experienced elders that do not perceive violence against women as a serious problem or do not have the required skills to provide effective counselling to an offender of this type of crime.
Perhaps a more fundamental challenge underlying the issue of representative membership is the ability of the community to take on the responsibilities required of community justice initiatives.
Inuit women see an essential determinant of a community preparedness to do this work as the health and well being of the community and those participating in the committees.
If this achieved, the next challenge is ensuring that all committee members are adequately trained. For example, it is generally accepted that members of community justice committees must have an adequate grounding in the Criminal Code offence with which an individual is charged.
However, the importance of training with respect to the dynamics of abuse is less often acknowledged. Inadequate training in this area has left many Inuit women choosing not to turn to the existing justice system to address the violence they have experienced. The solution lies in gender and racial sensitivity training for all justice personnel – including judges, Crown Attorney, RCMP officers, JPs, community justice committee members – to help bridge the distance between the experience of Inuit women with both the community-based justice initiatives, the Euro-Canadian justice system, and the promise of these reforms.
While training and awareness of the issues described above is essential, just as important is providing community justice committees with necessary support. To a certain extent, the community justice coordinator positions being considered by the Department of Justice and referred to earlier in this report, may alleviate the burdens associated with organizational details, including the work associated with providing the infrastructure services.
It remains a challenge to ensure that the other supports and services required to assist the committees in carrying out their work and achieving the goals of community-based justice are in place.
Without proper consideration of the interests and needs of the victim, the offender and the community, committees may increase the vulnerability of women and girls. To date, justice committees have been perceived by Inuit women to inordinately focus on the offender. This perception reflects the earlier noted point of the NSDC that committees have been used as a tool by defence counsels.
The justice committees’ methods of addressing the issues before them have been criticized by advocates of Inuit women survivors of violence. This has lead the same advocates to call upon the various levels of government to prevent the committees from dealing with offenses involving violence against women. For example, in its publications, Pauktuutit recommends that the federal and territorial governments set guidelines, standards or criteria for both membership on these committees and for the types of cases they are able to deal with.
It is evident when these arguments are reviewed in detail that the concerns being raised by Inuit women are rooted not so much in the methods used by the committees, but rather the lack of adequate resources and ongoing training provided to these committees to perform these tasks in a manner that protects and supports the women and adequately addresses the underlying problems of the violence.
The issue of a community’s preparedness to take on the responsibilities of community-based justice initiatives is ongoing. The challenge in preparing a community to take on this responsibility is multi-faceted. The further challenge is sustaining the commitment of the community and the members of these committees. Again, the individuals participating on the committees are providing an essential public service on a voluntary basis. The question remains whether they will be able to continue to provide this service if other opportunities arise that remunerate them for their services.
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