I was a problem drinker for a long time. I knew that I was a problem drinker all along. When I chose to drink, armed with that knowledge, I was choosing to cause hurt, either to myself or those around me. Still, I continued to make the choice and, because of that, I alone became responsible for the effects of that choice.
That’s why it’s disturbing to see the native community huddle around Christopher Pauchay and enable his fate to be decided by an Aboriginal Sentencing Circle.
Pauchay is the Saskatchewan Cree father who carried his two daughters into a minus 50-degree night, lost them in his drunkenness, and allowed them to freeze to death.
He pled guilty to criminal negligence causing death and a provincial court judge will consider his application for the sentencing circle December 5.
Pauchay is a problem drinker. Believe me, no one who’s a social drinker gets drunk enough to carry kids clad only in their underwear into the Saskatchewan deep freeze and forget them in the snow. An incident like this is not an isolated thing. Only people with a severe drinking problem do those things. I know. I did them.
Sentencing Circles are a result of the disproportionately high numbers of incarcerated aboriginal people in Canada. They were added to judicial consideration as a way and a means to consider the cultural specifics of native people appearing before the courts. They are a form of traditional tribal governance where the community at large gets to have a say in the assessment of wrongdoing.
The offender sits before his victims, the victim’s family, elders, the community and the Crown to hear the effect of his actions. In course, the offender gets to express his/her side, to offer explanation or to take responsibility for their actions, their choices.
That’s’ the one element that hasn’t much been discussed in any forum regarding Pauchay. Choice. As a dedicated and problem drinker, I know that anyone who drinks in that way never has a bottle forced upon them. There is no falling-off-the-wagon. You always choose to jump. You make that choice armed with the full knowledge of the coming hurt because your history with drink is scarred with it.
Pauchay chose to drink that night and, in effect, chose to put his family at risk. His daughters are dead as a result of that choice and there’s no bringing them back, there’s no justice for them, no healing. Pauchay cannot confront his victims. He can’t hear their pain because their voices were nullified with the first swallow.
Traditional native teaching is built on choice. Children who are reared in a traditional way are always given the power to choose. They are asked to examine the effect of any decision, good or bad. From that they learn the nature of consequence. They know, from an early age, that the power of choice is governed by consequence and their ability to make good choices is enhanced.
But the thing about traditional teaching and living is that they are not pick-and-choose propositions. You choose to follow a traditional framework for your life or you don’t. Pauchay obviously didn’t because the act of obliterating your senses with alcohol is not a traditional practice. A saying bandied about in native recovery circles is that ‘drinking is not Indian’ — and it isn’t.
So allowing him to choose a traditional form of sentencing is wrong. It’s wrong on two counts. It’s wrong in the first, because he’s obviously pulling the race card in his confrontation with justice in hopes of a more lenient sentence. It’s wrong in the second because it will not teach the community anything.
Yellow Quills First Nation Chief Robert Whitehead, said that a large percentage of the reserve abuses alcohol. Having Pauchay appear in a sentencing circle where the community at large could sit, would teach them something about the effects of alcohol, in Whitehead’s view.
Sadly, it won’t.
It will only teach them that there are no consequences. It will only teach them that harm caused through the choice of drinking can be salved by a traditional balm. It will only teach them that justice in Canada can be manipulated and that horrendous crimes can be treated the same as petty ones.
Certainly, there are too many native people incarcerated in our prisons. Certainly, there are societal and cultural problems specific to them that are at the root of that high representation. Certainly, something needs to be done to address it.
But not at the expense of justice.
Sometimes the choices we make result in harm and the only real learning tool is consequence. Christopher Pauchay must face the effects of his choice to drink. It’s how you eventually get sober for one thing. It’s how you learn justice for another.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org