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Kwanlin Dun looking at establishing circuit court

The Kwanlin Dun First Nation is hoping to have a circuit court up and running in the McIntyre subdivision by January of next year.

The Kwanlin Dun First Nation is hoping to have a circuit court up and running in the McIntyre subdivision by January of next year.

It would be similar to what other communities have, with court personnel, judges, lawyers and Crown prosecutors regularly travelling to the Whitehorse neighbourhood for cases impacting the community.

“We think that having more accountability right within our community is certainly one of our objectives,” said KDFN director of justice Jeanie Dendys.

“Community members have told us they feel a real disconnect between themselves and the downtown court system.”

Yukon territorial court sits every day in Whitehorse and regularly travels to each of the 13 communities, which is called circuit court.

For now the First Nation and the territorial government have had preliminary talks about setting up a stop in McIntyre.

Dendys said Territorial Chief Judge Karen Ruddy has offered to co-chair a working group.

Initially Dendys foresees only sentencing hearings taking place in the community before expanding to full trials.

Court matters are scheduled for hearing in the community where the offence is alleged to have taken place, Department of Justice spokesperson Tyler Plaunt told the News.

But the offender can also apply to the court to have the location changed, he added.

A McIntyre-based circuit court would also allow the First Nation to make submissions to the court, for example, during bail hearings, Dendys said.

“We would have more ability to provide submissions to the court and create that deeper awareness for the court on issues that are happening in the community.”

The move to a McIntyre-based circuit court is part of the First Nation’s broader strategy to make the community safer.

For the past year the First Nation has been regularly announcing new initiatives to reduce crime.

It launched a tip line last December and announced a community safety officer program last month, with KDFN citizens hired to patrol the community who residents could approach.

The initiatives came after two murders traumatized the community in 2014.

Statistics showed that over a thousand calls to 911 were made that year for a population of 500.

But a lot of calls to the police didn’t result in charges, Dendys said, as the community wasn’t providing the necessary information to the authorities.

The First Nation identified lack of confidence in the mainstream justice system as one of the reasons for that lack of co-operation.

Having court held in the community could improve residents’ trust in the system, she noted.

“Having this court established in the community will certainly help to gain greater access to justice and seeing justice done and potentially less barriers for them to come forward as witnesses,” Dendys said.

The KDFN Potlatch House, the only building big enough in the community, could be used for court hearings, she noted.

According to Dendys, the costs of running a circuit court in McIntyre would be minimal as it wouldn’t require the type of travelling other circuit courts in the communities demand.

“It’s essentially having the personnel that would normally sit in the Whitehorse courtroom to work in the community.”

The territorial department of justice confirmed that preliminary conversations happened but that costs and staffing requirements had to be looked at.

“The territorial court and the Department of Justice recognize that KDFN has the ability to draw down administration of justice power, including the creation and implementation of their own court system,” Plaunt said.

Court hearings have taken place in McIntyre in the past, Plaunt added.

In the long term, the First Nation wants to transfer some of the justice responsibilities from the territorial and federal governments back to them.

That possibility is set out in the KDFN self-government agreement.

The First Nation has been negotiating with both levels of government since 2013.

“We’ve had some really good discussion with Canada,” Dendys said.

“We’re feeling more optimistic about achieving a justice agreement in the near future.”

The Teslin Tlingit Council is the only self-governed First Nation in Canada with a justice agreement.

Signed in 2011, it established a Justice Council in charge of appointments to the peacemaker court.

That court only handles civil matters, ranging from hunting, wildlife and zoning to inheritance and adoption.

The first stage of the peacemaker court is to resolve issues through confidential mediation.

The second stage would be for the chief peacemaker to adjudicate the case, were the mediation unsuccessful.

That phase is not up and running yet. The First Nation is working to fill peacemaker positions.

The key difference is that the court follows the Tlingit way, known as Ha Kus Teyea.

“To summarize: it’s respect and honour of all living things,” Chief Peacemaker Gordon Reed told the News last month.

“Our goal is to have a healthy community by resolving dispute in a respectful and confidential way so our future generations will be safe.”

Part of the requirement for Reed’s job is to be of Tlingit ancestry and to be aware of Tlingit traditions.

Reed said he has handled several cases since April 2014.

It comes back to trust in the system.

“When a community takes ownership of their own issues it works a lot better for everyone rather than having a foreign system,” said Georgina Sydney, the TTC’s justice implementation co-ordinator.

The mainstream justice system, she said, is about going to court, paying a fine or going to jail.

“What we’re trying to do is go quite further than that: deal with the issue itself.”

Contact Pierre Chauvin at