'Extensive positive change' underway with Calgary Indigenous Court, says lawyer

In a ceremony that moved between the Blackfoot and English languages, the Calgary Indigenous Court officially opened Wednesday with a blessing, cleansing of the courtroom and the dedication of an eagle feather to be used for oaths.

Unique court opened with ceremony and began hearing cases Wednesday

Judge Eugene Creighton, left, and Traditional Knowledge Keeper Leonard Bastien presided over a ceremony opening the Calgary Indigenous Court on Wednesday. (Erin Collins/CBC)

In a ceremony that moved between the Blackfoot and English languages, the Calgary Indigenous Court officially opened Wednesday with a blessing, cleansing of the courtroom and the dedication of an eagle feather to be used for oaths.

And just hours after the ceremony, the court, in its first case, saw bail granted to a young man who might not have been released if not for the supports put in place by agency workers connected to the court.

"It's a refreshing change from the ordinary course of business in this building to have a room full of people trying to ensure accused people get the help they need so they don't remain stuck in the system," said the accused's lawyer, Kelsey Sitar.

"Despite being a brand new court, it appears extensive positive change is already underway."

Unlike the current system, workers from agencies like the John Howard and Elizibeth Fry Society and Native Counselling Services sit around a table with the judge, lawyers and accused to discuss how best to support the person charged.

In this case, the young man facing a domestic assault charge was released after some of those workers arranged for him to live at a sober group home with a plan to attend an addictions treatment centre afterward. 

'A historic moment'

The hosts of the ceremony were Traditional Knowledge Keeper Leonard Bastien from Piikani First Nation and provincial court Judge Eugene Creighton from the Blood Tribe Reserve.

"It's a historic moment," said Creighton. "I have such hope."

The court will attempt to connect Indigenous accused people with their cultures and communities and will focus on a peacemaking and restorative justice approach. It will handle bail and sentencing hearings.

The court was brought from idea to implementation by provincial court Judge Joanne Durant, who took the concept to the community and stakeholders 18 months ago.

Indigenous courtroom

Healing will be a key theme throughout the hearings held in the courtroom — healing for the offender, victim and community. 

"[We're] looking at all the circumstances that brought this individual into the courthouse … always trying to give the benefit of the doubt," Bastien said after the ceremony.

"We're wanting to throw some responsibility onto the accused so they can take responsibility of their actions." 

For the ceremony, Creighton performed his final act as a judge ahead of his retirement. Dressed in his judge's robe and a traditional headdress, Creighton said the court is a move forward toward reconciliation.

The Calgary Indigenous Court will take place inside Courtroom 1800, a space designed with Indigenous culture and traditions in mind. They all sit at the same level, in a circle. 

In this system, everyone is looked at as a participant: the accused, victim, judge, prosecutor, defence lawyer and all of the agency workers who are there to connect an offender with supports like housing, addictions services and cultural connections.

4 judges to preside over court

Those supports will make it more likely for Indigenous accused persons to be granted bail. Sentencing hearings are expected to include a healing plan and, when appropriate, will look at alternatives to incarceration. 

Despite making up less than five per cent of the Canadian adult population, Indigenous people account for about 30 per cent of incarcerated adults, according to recent statistics.

The Indigenous court is an effort to address those numbers through implementing recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) report.

The court will sit every Wednesday, with reconciliation and restorative justice at the centre of the process. 

Four judges who are either Indigenous or have deep ties to First Nations communities will preside over the court.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer was at the opening of the Calgary Indigenous Court on Wednesday morning. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

'What's hurting people?'

In attendance at Wednesday's ceremony were 16 stakeholder groups sitting around the courtroom table.

The gallery included judges, Calgary's police chief and provincial representation.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the UCP government supports different types of court models like drug treatment court and now the Indigenous court.

"Simply locking people up and throwing away the key is not the path forward, we have to make sure we're innovative," said Schweitzer. "What's hurting people, how do we get those issues resolved?"

Deputy Chief Sat Parhar was one of the stakeholders who consulted on the creation of the new court. The Calgary Police Service will provide a liaison officer.

"Our Indigenous community have huge history here," said Parhar. "It was important for us as grassroots, front-line responders to be very conscious of how we respond, how we take care of that community, how we can do things differently."


Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach her at or on Twitter at @CBCMeg.