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An opening ceremony was held for the first Indigenous Peoples Court in Ontario’s northeastern region on Thursday, which will offer specialized legal, cultural and social services to Indigenous offenders. 

Taking place in a Sudbury Court of Justice courtroom, the event was attended by members of First Nations, judges, lawyers and the public.  

“Every day, I see the need for this court,” Keith Chapman, the Sudbury jail’s indigenous liaison officer told CBC News. Chapman has been an outspoken advocate for such an initiative for over ten years. 

“It was a mission to have these individuals represented properly,” he said.  

According to Chapman, Anishnaabe people do not practice incarceration as a punishment for carrying out justice, which he believes is the reason that Indigenous people are overrepresented in correctional facilities. 

While Indigenous people only represent 5% of Canada’s total population, they account for 32% of the total prison population, according to data from the Department of Justice Canada. 

The Indigenous Peoples Court emphasizes restorative justice principles, instead of relying on incarceration for punitive sentencing. Federal correctional facilities also already have restorative justice programs for minorities and Indigenous offenders. Additionally, Indigenous offenders can be admitted to low-security healing lodges instead of serving their sentences with the general population.

“Anything that can address systemic or culturally specific issues, with a team of well versed experts, to keep indigenous Canadians from returning to custody while simultaneously keeping the public safe is always a good thing,” lawyer Ari Goldkind told True North. 

Additionally, these courts offer sentencing circles which involve all parties in the case, including other community members, sitting down together to discuss their experiences and perspectives ahead of sentencing. 

“The people that come before these courts often feel they have an opportunity to be heard more than they are heard in the traditional court process,” said Sharon Nicklas, chief judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, according to CBC News. 

While Goldkind supports the idea of giving more time and thought to restorative justice principles, he stressed the point that public safety must remain the top priority throughout all communities. 

“So long as public safety is not sacrificed, including those from the very communities that these courts emanate from, (which continues to be a debate that is not waged nearly enough), having a dedicated court that is devoted to spending more time listening to and addressing the restorative and culturally specific needs of the Indigenous community is a good thing,” said Goldkind.

The new Indigenous Peoples Court in Sudbury will primarily focus on sentencing but will also provide some trial management services.  Its opening marks the 20th court of its kind in the province.