'We can take the responsibility': Leaders discuss Indigenous justice at CBC forum

A packed house gathered inside Yellowknife's Northern United Place Wednesday night for a panel discussion about Indigenous people, healing and the justice system.

Panelists included Dene leaders, healers, defence lawyer

The panelists for the forum included Paul Andrew, left, Frank Hope, Chief Felix Lockhart, Chief Bill Erasmus, and Caroline Wawzonek. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

A packed house gathered inside Yellowknife's Northern United Place Wednesday night for a panel discussion about Indigenous people, healing and the justice system.

CBC North hosted the panel, which included Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, former CBC broadcaster and community leader Paul Andrew, Chief Felix Lockhart of the Łutsel K'e Dene Band, healer Frank Hope, and defence lawyer Caroline Wawzonek. 

The forum followed a screening of Tony: Back from the Brink — a documentary film produced by Piksuk Media of Clyde River, Nunavut. The film focuses on an Indigenous man who grows out of a horrendous childhood and into a violent life of crime. 

A crowd packed Northern United Place for the forum, which took place Wednesday night in Yellowknife. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

For Andrew, the former chair of the N.W.T.'s Minister's Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness, an important teaching moment from the film came when its titular character, Tony Kalluk, took a young man he is now counseling out onto the land for a hunting trip.

"He said that: 'When I'm out on the land I have no anger issues,'" Andrew said. "And I think, that, to me, was one of the most prominent comments that he made."

Andrew said that anger is often an underlying factor in many Indigenous people in the justice system, particularly those who have been through residential schools.

"The anger that they have... You may heal with it, you may think that it's gone, but then one day it just comes back. And you don't know why."

Lockhart said that the justice system needs a "major overhaul." In 2014, Indigenous people made up 88 per cent of the jail population in the Northwest Territories, according to Statistics Canada. 

"There has to be a major change," he said. "Punitive measures aren't working anymore."

Lockhart pointed to healing within communities as a possible solution, rather than sending all convicted criminals to prisons or jails in larger centres. 

"We can take the responsibility in our communities."

The panel discussion opened with the lighting of a qulliq by Rassi Nashalik, the former host of CBC's Igalaaq. Loren McGinnis moderated the discussion, which focused on the theme "justice without jails."

Rassi Nashalik lit a qulliq - a traditional Inuit lamp - to begin the panel. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)