If Canada’s court system is a square peg, some northern communities are a round hole.
“It’s not very useful to put people in a cage when the primary reason they’ve come before the courts is alcoholism and drug abuse or mental illness,” said Michael Bopp.
“You just make them meaner and they come back to the communities and they still haven’t had their issues resolved, so they’ll re-offend.”
Michael and Judie Bopp were in Whitehorse last week supporting Justice officials on the development of a wellness court as an alternative to the regular system in the Yukon.
The wellness court would act as one part of a problem-solving process whereby the accused, community members, family, counsellors and lawyers all work together to create a different outcome.
It would work to correct the issues — like substance abuse and poverty — that land people in the court system, rather than simply punishing offenders.
“The Justice department here is trying to step out of the box it’s been in for many years,” said Michael.
“The department has a hopeful vision to become a partner with other parts of society in contributing to healing and wellness for people and communities.”
This type of court has worked in cities across Canada for years.
But instead of simply transplanting a program, the Yukon is trying to tailor it to the territory’s unique circumstances.
The territorial court already has successfully experimented with alternative approaches to justice, such as a domestic violence treatment option court.
The Yukon was one of the leaders in the country in using sentencing circles and restorative justice.
This is a continuation of that work.
Ottawa develops programs that are supposed to fit groups of people across the country, then doles out its funding and that money must be used within a certain timeframe.
But communities need to be given the space to make their own plans, Judie said.
That means finding community solutions to community problems.
“You can say the words, ‘We want to partner with First Nations,’ but it’s another thing to create the level playing field where people can actually work together,” said Michael.
And that can be as simple as listening to the people who live and work in the communities.
It’s something the Bopps have been doing for decades through their work in community development.
For more than 30 years, the pair has worked and volunteered in many places across the country and around the world, beginning in 1976 and ‘77 when they operated the Dawson City Children’s Group Home.
In the 1980s, they co-founded the Four Worlds Centre for Development Learning based in Cochrane, Alberta.
Four Worlds began with a simple question: How can Canada’s aboriginal communities heal?
The Bopps’ partner in the organization, Phil Lane Jr., asked his father for advice and he replied with some wise words.
“‘Ask the experts for their advice,’ he said. ‘And whatever they’re doing don’t do that because it’s not working. Instead ask the spiritual and community leaders for their advise — the people who have a PhD in life.’”
And that became the cornerstone of Four World’s approach — listen first before giving advice.
It became clear the answer must come from within the communities, said Michael.
By combining strengths from government system, the communities and development experience from around the world, Four Worlds supports homegrown solutions to complex problems.
Four Worlds began with a mandate to address alcohol and drug abuse, but soon discovered that substance abuse was just one part of the overall problem, one rooted in the fundamental hurt that aboriginal communities are dealing with, said Michael.
The organization works with communities and the agencies that support them to transform the fundamental conditions that lead to crime.
“It’s not acceptable that we have people coming before the courts again and again and we’re not dealing with those underlying causes,” said Judie.
And the hurts of the past go further back than residential school.
It was only two or three generations ago that European diseases, to which aboriginal people had no immunity, ripped entire communities apart. In some families only one or two people were left alive.
“There are families that lost all of their members to the flu only a generation or two ago,” said Michael.
In one story, a six-year-old girl woke up in a camp to find she was the only one left alive. She had to go to the next camp to find somebody.
“You can’t have experiences like that without it having an impact on you,” said Judie.
“To understand why things are the way they are one of the critical things you have to do is take the time to listen and hear the stories.”
And there must be a safe environment in which people can tell their stories.
The wellness court is slated to run in the Yukon beginning in mid-April.
It will treat each client on a case-by-case basis.
Right now how the court will function is still a work-in-progress, said Judie.
Ideally, once in place, it would foster changes in the territory — recidivism should decrease, and the effects would be felt far beyond the individual offender, said Judie.
It would mean safer communities and a safer territory.
“It’s turning a liability into asset by changing the paths of peoples lives,” added Michael.