Winnipeg panel looks at Indigenous healing practices as alternative to justice system

The trials involving the killing of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine have put the Canadian justice system under scrutiny, with critics saying the system is failing Indigenous communities. So is there a better way?

‘Colten & Tina: Canadian Justice vs Indigenous Healing System’, panel held at Thunderbird House

The not guilty verdicts in trials connected to the killing of Tina Fontaine, 15, and Colten Boushie, 22, led to a panel discussion in Winnipeg Sunday looking at how traditional Indigenous healing practices may be an alternative to the current Canadian system.

The trials involving the killing of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine have put the Canadian justice system under scrutiny, with critics saying the system is failing Indigenous communities.

So is there a better way?

That's the question asked at a panel held in Winnipeg Sunday that looked at whether traditional Indigenous healing practices could be a viable alternative to the current Canadian system.

The panel, called 'Colten & Tina: Canadian Justice vs Indigenous Healing System', was held at Thunderbird House and included Nahanni Fontaine, MLA for Saint Johns and Manitoba official justice critic; Red Rising Magazine co-founder, Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie; Indigenous land-based educator, Tasha Spillett; and Damon Johnston, President of Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg.

"(The system) is primarily due for a review and some significant change," Johnston told CBC Manitoba Weekend Morning Show host, Nadia Kidwai, before the panel discussion.

Dozens of people came together in Sagkeeng First Nation Tuesday to honour Tina Fontaine and her family. Family members, elders, community leaders and students who went to school with Fontaine gathered to let the family know they are not alone. 1:54

Johnston, who was a correctional officer and probation officer in Ontario during the 1970s, said he believes the current system is failing Indigenous communities.

"I got out of it because I really didn't see huge value in the way the system was working at that time," he said. "I'd like to see a process where we come together on these issues and build some consensus on what changes we should implement."

Restorative justice

He said the system first needs to start looking at offenders as individuals to better understand why they are acting in a way that's leading them into the justice system in the first place.

"We're all unique, so we need a system that recognizes that," he explained. "What's causing the individual to do the unacceptable behaviours and causing them to end up in jail?"

He also favours using restorative justice approach.

"It's a historic Indigenous practice where you bring the victims together with the offender in what they call a conferencing situation and then you work with the two sides to find a resolution that's acceptable to them," he explains of the process.

"Because the focus then becomes not on each of the parties, the focus becomes on one of resolution.

"It takes time to get to the resolution, so then a lot comes out in the process."

A call for change

The verdicts in the cases involving the deaths of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie show change is needed, says Johnston.

Last month a Saskatchewan jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty in the August 2016 killing of Boushie, 22.

Stanley shot Boushie in the head after he and four other young people from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation reserve drove onto Stanley's rural property in an SUV. Stanley testified during the trial that the handgun he was holding accidentally went off.

Civilian review commission will investigate complaint of racial discrimination. 2:32

Less than two weeks after the verdict in the Stanley case came down, a jury in Winnipeg found Raymond Cormier not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine, 15.

Fontaine's body was found in Winnipeg's Red River, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks, in August 2014. Cormier was charged in December 2015.

Johnston thinks the accused in both cases would have benefited from the restorative justice process.

"When someone is a victim there's anger, there's resentment, there's sometimes thoughts of revenge. There's all these different human reactions to what has happened," he said. "Those are immediate reactions to the pain, the loss of a loved one. They're very strong and powerful, but time is the great healer.

"The restorative justice process is an organized process that has a desired outcome on both sides so you're focused on resolving which in the end, don't we want healing?"