PORT HAWKESBURY: The effort to combine justice with wellness made for a gripping discussion early last week, as the tale of bringing Wellness Courts to the local area was fleshed out by a person who knows the legal system from centre to circumference, Judge Laurie Halfpenny-MacQuarrie.
“When we know better, we can do better,” she told The Reporter after the discussion she hosted on Tuesday, January 29, in the parish hall of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Due to the efforts of Halfpenny-MacQuarrie, along with others in the legal field and community leaders, Wellness Courts are now active in Port Hawkesbury and Wagmatcook First Nation. Indeed, on the Wagmatcook side of things, the community now has the first full-service Indigenous Court in Canada, the Donald Marshall Centre for Reconciliation and Justice.
“When I see people from that community come in feeling that they are welcomed, not being judged in a community they are unfamiliar with, that makes my job so much easier,” she said.
The seed for all of this was planted when Halfpenny-MacQuarrie noticed, years ago, that people appearing in her court had a habit of returning. A judge has to follow particular guidelines, she said, noting sentences have to deter people from committing crimes while protecting the public.
“I felt there was something wrong,” she said. “I wasn’t deterring the person, and I wasn’t protecting the public.”
In visiting law conferences, the local judge started hearing of a potentially better method. She was intrigued by the concept of therapeutic courts and problem-solving courts, where the aim is to get to the root of what’s causing the trouble. Eventually, Halfpenny-MacQuarrie came into contact with a Yukon judge who established a Wellness Court.
“She had the same problems I did,” Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said, noting the Yukon judge didn’t have enough resources to have therapeutic courts devoted to specific matters (a court for mental health issues, one for domestic violence, etc.) but a Wellness Court could cast a broader net.
“She had people with the same issues, but she didn’t have enough of one group of people to justify a dedicated court, so she decided to do a wellness court to deal with people with all the issues.
“I thought ‘that’s perfect.’ That’s exactly what I need.
A Wellness Court is for someone with a significant history of offending behaviour and who has already done time, and who may be sentenced to more jail time. If a person like that is committed to making a real change in his or her life, Wellness Court is an option.
“In this court, there’s a wellness plan that’s set out for them,” Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said. “Things are suggested to them, and they have to have the desire and the will to carry through. They come back to court every month, saying they saw so-and-so, here’s my certificate. They do that for a certain amount of time.”
The minimum duration of these updates is 18 months, but most often it lasts two to three years. Indeed, Halfpenny-MacQuarrie noted most people have their sentence and probation served long before their commitment to the wellness program ends.
“They come back because they want to be well,” she said. “They are sick of being sick, they’re sick of the shame in their family, they’re sick of how they’re looked at in their community. They feel like outcasts.
“We handle them as a team until we think they’re ready to graduate.”
Halfpenny-MacQuarrie mentioned one success story where a gentleman was able to re-establish a relationship with his daughter and mother, get a job, quit drinking, and deal with issues of grief – all as a result of his Wellness Court program.
With a Wellness Court set up in Port Hawkesbury, Halfpenny-MacQuarrie turned her attention to a specific issue that arose in Wagmatcook. In 2015, the provincial government decided to close a number of courts including those in Port Hood and Baddeck.
This wasn’t good news for Wagmatcook, the judge said, noting the scaling-back of resources left people having to drive to Sydney to handle legal matters.
It was at this point that Wagmatcook Chief Norman Bernard tapped Halfpenny-MacQuarrie on the shoulder, asking if his people would be able to come to Port Hawkesbury for court services. The judge said no problem.
Of course, getting from Wagmatcook to Port Hawkesbury could be a challenge in its own right.
“There was no public transit, not everyone had a car, and not many people had the financial means to hire a taxi,” she said. “Some had to come to see their legal aid lawyer, Kevin Patriquin, or their probation officer, and that meant additional travel days to court.”
As a result of the travel issue, some people from Wagmatcook were missing their court appearances. That meant the judge had to issue warrants for them, and something about that didn’t sit well with Halfpenny-MacQuarrie. It wasn’t like the folks from Wagmatcook were choosing not to appear in court. In many cases, they just couldn’t get there.
“So, on April 1 of 2016, I asked for a meeting with Chief Rod Googoo, Chief Norman Bernard, and Chief P.J. Prosper from Paqtnkek,” the judge said.
“I told them that, morally, I don’t feel right about issuing warrants. Can we work together to reduce this? Norman said, if we build a court, will you come? I said, sure, but the government just closed a court in Baddeck, so I don’t think they’ll be happy to announce they’re building a new court.
“He said, no, I’ll build a court – Rod and I.”
Excited but anticipating issues with the provincial government, Halfpenny-MacQuarrie committed to helping move the project forward. She noted that she was willing to forgo her travel expense and meal allowance, to help sweeten the deal for the province.
Eventually, the judge – along with Chiefs Norman Bernard, Morley Googoo, and Rod Googoo – managed to get the ear of Premier Stephen McNeil.
“I explained to him that access to justice for First Nations people has to happen on the First Nation,” Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said. “We have to decolonize every aspect of First Nation life.
“I explained to him the hardships for people trying to make bail. If you live in a First Nations community, you don’t own your home – thank you John A. Macdonald and the Indian Act – so how can you pledge your property? If you don’t have a job, how can you pledge money?
“I told him about a young man who came to Port Hawkesbury from Wagmatcook in January during a blizzard. He hitchhiked there with flip-flops on his feet. The staff collected money and sent him back in a taxi.
“The premier looked at his deputy and said, make this happen.”
Halfpenny-MacQuarrie noted that the first priority was to make the court look like a First Nations Court. There are seven sacred teachings of a First Nations court: love, honesty, respect, truth, courage, wisdom, and humility. They are each tied to a spirit animal, and those teachings were going to be the foundation for sentencing in Gladue Court and Wellness Court.
The Wagmatcook Court House now has paintings on its walls representing the seven sacred teachings. The courtroom is circular, symbolizing the Mi’kmaq culture’s respect for balance. With that, smudgings are done regularly, the judge’s seat isn’t elevated, and a feather belonging to Donald Marshall Junior is on display.
Some of those specifications aren’t standard for Nova Scotian courts, which caused some verbal battles with the province. Indeed, naming the court the Donald Marshall Centre for Reconciliation and Justice caused a fair bit of debate. Court houses are generally not named after people.
“I said, look, this is not your court,” Halfpenny-MacQuarrie said. “This is a First Nations court, and Donald Marshall Junior has been messed over by the justice system in this province, and you have to make amends.”
The province agreed to the judge’s arguments, and on June 21 the Wagmatcook facility was officially opened. Fittingly, June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day.
While Gladue Courts exist in other communities, the Donald Marshall Centre for Reconciliation and Justice is truly the first of its kind in Canada. It combines a Wellness Court with a facility for trials, bail hearings, and numerous other court-related services.
Halfpenny-MacQuarrie noted that Senator Lowell Murray, a lawyer who served as Chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gave the Wagmatcook court the highest praise possible.
“He called it the gold standard in the country,” she said.
Maybe even a more positive endorsement comes from those appearing in the court themselves, explained the judge, noting that travel to Port Hawkesbury sometimes seemed to influence the way people pled. However, with the court in Wagmatcook now hearing cases, folks are offering pleas that mean they’ll get a fair shake.
“When First Nations people would plead in Port Hawkesbury, they’d plead guilty because they were only making one trip,” she said. “Now, the pleas are often not guilty.”