By Hannah Reardon

Last week I had the immense privilege of attending the Cree Justice Department’s annual team gathering. For the first time in two years, over 60 employees from the 9 Cree communities got together to strategize on new directions for the department and celebrate their accomplishments over the past few years. The event was held over 3 days at the Hilton Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, and I was given the opportunity to attend, participating in team-building exercises, sitting in on workshops and getting to know the incredible people who work for the Cree Justice Department.

There are a few moments that stand out for me when I think back over the week, not least the frenetic energy that filled the room when we played “Go get me…”, a Cree children’s game which requires participants to go fetch particular items from spectators in the room and race back to the remaining chairs before anyone else in order to progress to the next round. The hilarity of witnessing grown adults topple their colleagues and tear off their footwear when the MC demanded that participants bring him a man’s black dress shoe left me and the rest of the room shrieking with laughter.

More seriously though, the main impression I take away from my week in Gatineau is the true sense of awe I felt in witnessing the innovations that the Cree Justice Department is implementing to improve the services offered to their communities. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) and the subsequent agreements gave the Cree Nation jurisdictional authority over certain criminal justice matters, giving rise to the Cree Department of Justice and Correctional Services (DOJCS). This jurisdictional authority was constitutionally-enshrined when s.35 of the 1982 Constitution Act entrenched JBNQA rights. But the Cree Nation has never stopped pushing for greater recognition of their sovereign authority over local matters, especially in the area of justice. As a result, under the visionary leadership of the department’s director, Don Nicholls, Cree Justice is expanding both in the size of its team and its sphere of activity.

The Justice Department provides extensive services in all 9 Cree communities. It provides accompaniment to individuals involved with the Justice system, from the moment they are arrested to the moment of their release. At each stage, its dedicated staff members assist their clients in navigating the complexities of the criminal justice system and seek to obtain the best rehabilitative outcomes for those who become entangled with the Canadian justice system. This also includes redirecting some clients out of the criminal justice system and into Community Justice Committees (CJC). The CJCs are made up of community members and provide an alternative justice process, outside of the court system. This alternative justice system rests on principles of restorative justice, including through healing circles and land-based programming that seek to rehabilitate offenders and reintegrate them into their communities. All activities are guided by Cree beliefs and Cree values.

Another example of the DOJCS’ remarkable rethinking of what we might consider ‘justice’ is the upcoming launch of its Tiny Homes project. This project will provide safe housing to individuals who have been released from prison. In the Tiny House communities, folks will have access to programming and services that will facilitate their reintegration into their communities. This will allow them access to privacy and the comfort of a home, where they can heal and think about their next steps in a supportive environment. As a result, the DOJCS anticipates that the program will improve community safety and reduce recidivism through a holistic approach to justice and healing.

Aside from the Tiny Homes project, the DOJCS is also helping to fund a number of other infrastructure projects, including addictions treatment centres and healing lodges, youth camps, women’s shelters, transitional housing for houseless folks, and a halfway house in Val d’Or. All of these initiatives combine prevention and rehabilitation and are the result of close collaboration between the DOJCS and other departments in the Cree Nation Government, including the Cree Health Board and the Cree School Board.

As it actively resists any form of siloing, the DOJCS is creating a vision of justice that is closely tied to health, education and community well-being. By exercising its sovereignty over matters of local justice, the DOJCS is demonstrating that there is another way to think about justice, one that places rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness at the heart of what it does.

Of course, this vision of justice is closely tied to the Cree cultural values that guide everything that the DOJCS does. There is a danger in idealizing the way an organization like DOJCS operates. This danger arises when one finds oneself slipping into an admiration that tends towards emulation. No method can ever be directly imported into a different context and applied as is. Everything must always be adapted to fit the particular context in which it operates. This is a mantra that I heard Don Nicholls repeat several times over the week in Gatineau. But this doesn’t mean that young interns like me shouldn’t look to the work that DOJCS is doing and be inspired by the realization that a different modus operandi is possible. Jurisdictional authority over local justice has given the Cree Nation space to innovate in ways that the Canadian government surely never thought possible. This shows the power and the potential of sovereignty for Indigenous nations across Canada.

If I’ve learned anything over the past few months, it is this: sovereign nation-to-nation treaty-building – not the vague and mushy term “reconciliation” – should be the goal if there is a serious desire to repair relationships between settlers and Indigenous people on this land. My time working for the DOJCS has shown me the incredible initiatives that can come out of giving land and power back to Indigenous nations. I can only hope to see momentum towards this goal accelerate and intensify over the course of my career and my lifetime, and to aspire to have a small part to play in contributing to its realization. I am grateful beyond words to the DOJCS and to McGill’s IHRIP program for giving me the opportunity to embark on this journey of learning. This summer internship opened my eyes and set me on a new path, and I will always be thankful to those who made it possible.

Chiniskumitin. Miikwech.