Rupert Ross is “a white guy talking about Indians.”
“I didn’t want this role,” said the Ontario Crown attorney.
“That’s the last thing anybody needs.”
But after a Cree woman asked Ross to put his ideas into a book, he obliged.
“She said it was my colleagues that were killing her people, and it would take a white guy to put it in words they understand.”
Ross, who spoke at this week’s Focus on Victims of Crime Conference, has been a Crown prosecutor in remote First Nation communities for more than 20 years.
“When you work in tiny places, you get to see the results of the criminal justice system,” he said.
“And when you prosecute a man for family violence and send him to jail and then 10 years later you’re prosecuting his son for the same thing, you say, ‘This isn’t working’.
“You can’t see this easily in big cities, so you really can’t evaluate the work you’re doing.
“I could in these places.”
Ross arrived in one community to find the RCMP had not collected the witness files he needed.
“I was a little grumpy about it,” he said.
But as Ross reprimanded the officer, he noticed her eyes were welling with tears.
“In the last 14 days we cut down five kids,” she told him.
“Four are dead and one is on life support.”
But the problem is not just youth suicide, said Ross.
“The youth are killing each other.”
A bunch of kids in one of the communities decided they were going to beat up another youth, said Ross.
They got the kid in the back of a truck and the fight started while they were driving.
The kid was knocked out of the truck, then the youth backed over him before hiding his body in the woods.
“And these kids had no previous criminal records — nothing,” said Ross.
In another case, a young guy was beaten with tire irons and wrenches then hauled out of the community and buried under a pile of sticks.
“But he must have been still alive,” said Ross.
“So they jammed a big stick down his throat and stirred it.”
He died choking on his own blood.
And it’s not just youth who are at risk.
Ross covered a case where an intoxicated grandmother came looking for a drink at a house in the community.
Hours later, she was found dead with a high blood-alcohol level and a broomstick shoved up her anus.
It ruptured her kidney, said Ross.
The kid who did it was found two days later still wearing the T-shirt stained with her blood.
“I don’t know if it’s this bad in the Yukon,” said Ross.
Statistics Canada suggests it’s worse.
The rate of sexual assaults, violent crimes and robberies in the territory are triple what they are in BC or Alberta, according to a recent report.
As long as First Nation communities continue to suffer the effects of colonization under a Western paradigm, these problems will not go away, said Ross.
As the Crown prosecutor, Ross is supposed to speak on behalf of the community.
“But then, you realize you haven’t the faintest idea what the community wants,” he said.
When he was just starting out, someone sent Ross a paper on cultural differences. It talked about things like aboriginals showing respect by not having direct eye contact.
“And that was huge for me,” he said. “Because all the witnesses wouldn’t give direct eye contact, and we thought that meant they were insincere.
“And here was someone telling me, ‘No, in their culture that’s a sign of respect.’
“So I started to say, are we misreading all the people we’re dealing with? And what other stuff are we misinterpreting?”
Ross went from worrying about “doing a good job in court” to realizing First Nations are coming at justice from an entirely different worldview.
“Aboriginals don’t see the world the same way we do,” he said.
However, even knowing this, it took Ross quite awhile to realize their perspective.
Early in his career, as part of the Aboriginal Justice Directorate, Ross travelled the country examining First Nations healing programs.
On the first reserve he visited, in Cape Breton, a grandmother took Ross aside.
“She said, ‘You can go and study the programs, but until you get the sense we see the world differently than you, you won’t know what you’re seeing.’”
But the aboriginal perspective wasn’t easy to grasp.
One elder showed Ross a plant in a meadow.
Western science will tear the plant apart and name every piece, then understand what the plant is about.
“But the elder will look at the meadow and what insects, birds and animals come to that plant — she will look around the plant, not at it, and have a very different sense of the plant.”
So now you see why we have a very different idea of what justice should be, said the elder.
Ross just shook his head.
But the lessons kept coming.
Ross was told law doesn’t come from books — it’s out there (and the teacher pointed out the window).
He learned that aboriginals have many different names for the same object, depending on how it is used. A shell could be an ashtray, a candy dish or, during smudging ceremonies, a sacred vessel.
But it didn’t come together for Ross until he picked up a grandmother walking back from gathering blueberries on one of the reserves.
“I asked her about the blueberry crop that year,” said Ross.
“She answered, ‘I was out at the dump and saw 16 bears.’”
Ross asked one thing and she answered with another.
“But it was the perfect answer,” he said.
If it had been a good crop, the bears would have been pigging out on berries, not digging through garbage at the dump.
“I understood because it was the relationship between these things.”
That’s when it started coming together.
The plant puzzle suddenly made sense.
“We see the individual plant,” said Ross.
“But for First Nations, until you know the plant’s relationship to all things, you can’t say you know it.”
Same with the shell — its name changes according to its relationship with other things.
And it’s the same with justice; it’s not just a law in a book, it’s the symbiotic relationship of everything to everything else, said Ross.
It changed how Ross saw his court cases.
There was a young guy, with no criminal record, who was walking to a party and saw a bottle of rum on a table just inside an open patio door.
He couldn’t resist it.
“The youth was caught and our notion of justice would be to have him pay for the rum, etc.,” said Ross.
But it runs deeper than that.
The relationship those people had with their home was fundamentally changed by his presence.
“Their place of security was altered — that’s where the crime took place.”
After guiding the homeowners through what he calls “their downstream emotional baggage,” Ross explained it to the kid who stole the rum.
And he’d “never thought about it that way,” said Ross.
In victims’ groups, Ross once heard about a rape case where, 14 years later, the woman still would not let her grandchildren sit on her knee because she feels so dirty about what happened.
That is the crime, he said.
“Our western system focuses on the acts rather than all these downstream relational consequences.”
Aboriginal justice does the opposite.
“The sophistication and validity of aboriginal ways of looking and teaching are as important now as when the Europeans first arrived,” said Ross.
The aboriginal justice system sees victims sit down with the offender to talk out the crime.
At the start, the perpetrator is usually defensive, said Ross.
Or they show insincere remorse.
Ross remembered one case where a drunken man in his 20s grabbed the breast of a 15-year-old girl as he stumbled past.
He was charged and the family agreed to attend a circle process.
The girl was too scared to come, but her parents and her younger sister went.
The mom and dad talked about how the girl’s grades were failing and how they hadn’t seen her laugh, said Ross.
But the guy remained defiant.
It wasn’t until her younger sister talked about how every day the girl used to come home and walk the dog and today when she came home, the dog was lying outside the girl’s closed door with the leash in it’s mouth.
“A tear rolled down his cheek,” said Ross.
“That was the moment of justice.
“In the Mohawk language, when justice happens, they call it ‘the moment of face cracking.’”
It rarely happens in the western system, he said.
“And a justice system that doesn’t let an offender realize what he did, is not a justice system.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at email@example.com