Akwesasne pushes the boundaries on Indigenous self-governance

Kyrie Ransom and Bonnie Cole spoke to Queen’s Law this week about the Mohawks of Akwesasne’s plan to create their own laws and how they are shaping a court system unique to their community’s Haudenosaunee culture and philosophies.

Ransom, the Justice Coordinator of the Akwesasne Justice Department, and Cole, Legal Counsel for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, spoke in front of two dozen Queen’s Law community members. They offered reflections on their objectives in developing Akwesasne’s alternative sentencing structure, as the community takes steps with potentially wide-ranging implications for self-determination in an Indigenous context.

“My role as Justice Coordinator is to oversee our community’s legislative development,” said Ransom, a member of the Wolf clan. “I ask questions like, ‘What does Akwesasne want to see as a society?’, and ‘how do we get there?’”

Cole added that as Legal Counsel, she seeks to accomplish two primary objectives. “We want to capture both theory and philosophy within our legislation,” asserted Cole. “But we also want to formalize the courtroom systems we’ve been developing for decades within our community. We’ve come a long way since the Indian Act. External courts don’t fit our needs. In reality, Mohawk problems need to be solved by Mohawk people. We are building a fundamentally community-based approach.”

In implementing this vision, Ransom emphasized the importance of translating modern academic discussions on Indigenous law into concrete solutions that improve the lives of Akwesasne members.

“In academic realms, a lot of time is spent theorizing about Indigenous philosophies and taking an abstract view of Indigenous law,” noted Ransom. “But in the process, we hit a wall. What do these academic pursuits mean for our people on the ground? How do we apply Indigenous law, and develop our institutions that put our people at the forefront?”

Ransom views traditional legal perspectives as excessively focused on incarceration and punitive measures, rather than rehabilitation. For this reason, she emphasized a need for her community to be unafraid to challenge predominant narratives in establishing its legal framework. “We must ask, ‘Why do we even need a punitive system in place?’ In developing our community’s laws and institutions, why don’t we flip the script and build a society that lives out the culture our community carries?”

An important aspect of such efforts is bolstering the amount of Indigenous law education provided in Canadian law schools. “When I was in law school, Indigenous students were allowed to put their medals on once a year and parade down the street – but you could never take Indigenous law as a subject,” shared Cole. “That was unfortunate, because Indigenous law is exactly what law schools need. Its philosophy is about looking at all individuals as people. You cannot reduce them to mere defendants or offenders. That’s somebody’s child, wife, grandparent…That’s somebody’s ‘somebody.’ Indigenous law abides by the mantra that we want to make others whole again, using rules by which we collectively agree to abide.”

Professor Ardi Imseis, who attended the coffee chat, came away from the event excited to learn more about Akwesasne’s efforts. “The guest speakers quite clearly indicated that Akwesasne is pushing boundaries,” noted Imseis. “Akwesasne is improving everyday lives, in sectors both mundane and highly important, as it administers justice in its community. Yet its practices, and Canada’s response to same, offer broader opportunities from an international law perspective: to progressively develop the normative concept of self-determination of peoples both here and abroad. I look forward to visiting Akwesasne and learning more from the vitally important work they are doing there.”

Professor Gail Henderson, also in attendance, was equally inspired by the chat and the wide-ranging implications of Akwesasne’s self-governance for the law. “I thought it was a very thought-provoking presentation,” she says. “For example, thinking about the words we use for labelling roles in the justice system, and how these words influence the role itself, such as ‘prosecutor’ in the Canadian criminal justice system, and coming up with new words that better reflect what we want that person to do.”

Darian Doblej, Law’21, actively facilitates that as a volunteer on the Pro Bono Students Canada – Queen’s Chapter Akwesasne Self-Governance project. “Akwesasne’s steps towards self-governance in legal administration and jurisdiction creates a very exciting time to be a student-at-law,” says Doblej. “Akwesasne’s assertions challenge everything we know about the law. As a proud Ojibway man, or what Canadian laws know to be ‘Indian,’ I am thrilled by the prospect of taking control of our own legal mechanisms and not asking permission from Crown. The Treaty area from which I come never asked to be subservient, and so this change on the part of the Mohawks of Akwesasne, and their assertion of power, excites me.”

For her part, Liz Guilbault, Law’19, asked Ransom and Cole about their view on the relationship between provincial courts and Akwesasne’s legal mechanisms. “The guest speakers at the event highlighted that their preventative measures led to far fewer Akwesasne members going through the Canadian court system,” said Guilbault. “Not only is the restorative justice council far more effective for Akwesasne members who come before the Akwesasne Court, but its other restorative programs are working. Akwesasne is a fantastic example of a successful alternative to Western judicial systems, and an alternative system that should be looked at for anyone who recognizes the harms of the Canadian justice system itself.”

Having visited Akwesasne in 2017 as part of a Queen’s contingent, Guilbault came away from the event even more inspired by the community’s resilience and confidence in shaping a court system that better reflected its philosophy. “The people of Akwesasne did not wait for permission from Canada or some other authority to do what is right for their community, said Guilbault. “Kyrie Ransom and Bonnie Cole spoke to their people’s understanding that they’ve been governing themselves for centuries, and one day Canada will catch up and realize this.”

Republished from the Queens Faculty of Law.

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