Best of both cultures


Nunavut’s assistant deputy minister of justice, Rebecca Williams, provided us this week with a reminder of something that is still too often ignored when people talk about issues related to justice and corrections.

At a press conference called to release a report on Nunavut’s justice system done by the Nunavut Social Development Council, Williams described how Inuit felt when fly-in, fly-out court parties first invaded Nunavut’s small communities. “They would come in, talk about something, then take somebody away.”

She said that in those days, Inuit who showed up in court felt the same way as people who show up at a square dance without knowing how to dance — clumsy, awkward, not knowing how to act or what to do.

But that is changing. “I think there are Inuit in the communities who can take part in the dance now,” Williams said, referring to the work of Justice Beverly Browne, who brought a new approach to her work when she served as a territorial court judge within the old Northwest Territories court system,

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been presented with overwhelming evidence to show that this is true, not the least of which is the high-quality report on corrections produced by the planning committee that Williams belongs to.

The report is the product of a thoughtful balance between two ways of looking at justice that not so long ago were considered irreconcilable — the Inuit way and the Qallunaat way.

For example, the report relies partly on hard-headed statistical information supplied by the Vancouver-based consultant John Evans, who gathered the data for a previous study done for the Northwest Territories in 1998. This work reveals the appalling rates of crime, especially violent crime in Nunavut, as well as the shocking lack of services for inmates in territorial correctional centres.

This is the kind of essential information that the Nunavut government cannot ignore when setting out to rebuild Nunavut’s corrections system

But at the same time, the report also relies on information provided by Inuit, the kind of information about Inuit culture and the Inuit experience that only Inuit can provide. Here’s a small sample:

“Wisdom is often associated with patient teaching and tolerance for mistakes. Supporting and showing a caring attitude to others, including those who make mistakes, is a traditional value. Corrections must seek to learn from and respect these traditional values as it helps those in its care.”

If the Nunavut government is able to carry out the recommendations of the corrections planning committee, it will have gone a long way towards combining the best of Inuit and Qallunaat thinking, and it will have gone a long way towards demonstrating that Inuit society can borrow and adapt things from Euro-Canadian society without being overwhelmed or assimilated.

However, the question of whether or not the Nunavut government can afford to carry out the plans recommended by its corrrections planning committee is an enormous “if.” The training courses, the halfway houses, and the proposed community corrections workers will all cost money. On top of that, building the proposed new correctional centre in Nunavut will cost an enormous amount of money that only Ottawa can afford to provide, not to mention the annual costs of operating and maintaining it.

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