By Anna Gilmer
I have recently completed my internship at Akwesasne, a cross-border Mohawk community near Cornwall, Ontario. I was specifically working for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which governs the Canadian half of the community and is located partially in Ontario and partially in Quebec.
When I sat down to write this second blog post, I reflected on my time at the Akwesasne Justice Department, and tried to think of the most interesting thing about it. As I considered everything I had been exposed to at the department, about all the programs and services that they run, I was struck by the huge scope of their mandate.
The Justice Department of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is made up of only approximately 17 staff. But these 17 people cover a huge range of services. Their lawyer and paralegals provide legal assistance on all legal matters to community members and to the band; they have probation and parole services as well as an early release program in place for community members in both Ontario and Quebec; and they run the conservation and compliance offices. They also draft new legislation, conduct the local elections and referendums, and are currently in negotiations with Canada for a final self-government agreement. The Akwesasne Mohawk Court serves as a community court, addressing matters within a specified mandate. Finally, the Community Justice Program (a program within the department) assists with young offenders, organizes community service work, and runs diversion programs and circle sentencing. It is a huge portfolio, and represents an impressive move towards local control over justice.
Of course, many aspects of justice at Akwesasne are reflective of outside structures, since the system has had to be redeveloped from scratch in the last few decades. In a discussion of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court, the Director of the department, Joyce King, explained to me that when the court was set up, the department brought in Canadian lawyers to train Justices. As such, the court is reflective of the only system those lawyers knew: it is adversarial, with the Justice at the front and rules reflective of Ontario and Quebec procedure. Despite the strong Canadian influence, the Justice Department has worked to incorporate Mohawk traditions, values and laws. Community control has also been prioritized, and is central to law enactment procedures and other processes. It is interesting to see how the community has worked to regain a Mohawk system of justice on the territory.
What is also interesting about the justice department, and especially about the Community Justice Program, is its genuine focus on ameliorating the problems facing the community. Among other things, this means addressing such issues with youth, and helping them stay safe and out of the justice system. Between my research and writing, I had the opportunity to help plan and then attend the program’s Summer Cultural Youth Camp. The Camp was focused on culture, and provided youth in the community (and particularly those in contact with the justice system) with an opportunity to practice their culture, to listen to teachings, and to live Mohawk values. They fished, sang, danced, did crafts, made fires and listened to stories. Programming also addressed issues facing youth in the community, such as drug and alcohol abuse, the large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and more generally the continued effects of colonialism. I was impressed by how well the participants responded to the camp.
In a small but incredibly complex community, the Akwesasne Justice Department does a lot. It attempts to rehabilitate community members who have been convicted. It works to keep youth safe and away from criminal activity. It incorporates Mohawk traditions and values into the justice system. It passes laws that reflect community priorities and ideas. Of course, it faces its share of challenges, and the structures in place are not perfect. Nonetheless, it is an impressive example of the kind of work that Indigenous communities are doing to regain control and assert self-determination.