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Presiding judge at Wagmatcook court was force behind on-reserve justice

The Chronicle Herald with Martha Paynter 12 October 2018

Etched into Judge Laurie Halfpenny-MacQuarrie’s memory is the image of the Wagmatcook man hitchhiking 80 kilometres to Port Hawkesbury wearing flip flops in January.

The Mi’kmaq man made it to his court appearance three years ago. But it was another sobering reminder to the Port Hawkesbury provincial court judge of how the justice system was failing the First Nations community.

“I was issuing warrant after warrant for non-appearance and it wasn’t because they were being disrespectful of the court and refused to be there,” said Halfpenny-MacQuarrie. “It was that geographically, they couldn’t do it; there was no public transportation.”

Of the ones from the Mi’kmaq community that made it to their court appearances, the vast majority of them were pleading guilty, recalled Halfpenny-MacQuarrie, the keynote speaker at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) Persons Day Breakfast at St. Mary’s Boat Club in Halifax on Friday.

Fast-forward three years later and things have changed dramatically. In April, Wagmatcook opened its own distinct provincial court, incorporating Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs. Halfpenny-MacQuarrie was the engine behind the landmark event, meeting with local chiefs in 2016 to get the ball rolling. The Guysborough County native is now the presiding judge at the new court.

Operating in close consultation with the First Nations community, including the chief, council and elders, it’s a venue where Mi’kmaq feel their voices are being heard and rehabilitation is unfolding.

“Before you were pleading guilty because you didn’t want to have to go back to court again,” said Halfpenny-MacQuarrie. “You didn’t have to try to get witnesses to come.

“Now, it’s one not guilty plea after another, after another.”

It was a point that struck home with Martha Paynter, chairwoman of Women’s Wellness Within,who attended Friday’s event. In the end, she wanted to see hard numbers.

“The way people are pleading that is profound,” said Paynter. “We need to have the numbers on that. I just want to see it in black and white. We know that people in power get not guilty verdicts. But we know people are pleading guilty out of poverty.”

The provincial Department of Justice was not immediately able to provide those statistics on Friday.

The creation of the court is in line with a 1989 Marshall Inquiry recommendation calling for more provincial court sittings on Nova Scotia reserves, as well as calls to action outlined in the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

The Wagmatcook courthouse inside the Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre offers programs including a Gladue court, which refers to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that requires courts to take Aboriginal circumstances into account when handing down a sentence.

It also offers a healing and wellness court, dedicated to Indigenous offenders who plead guilty or accept responsibility for their actions and are at a high risk to reoffend.

The court also serves a second nearby Mi’kmaq community, Waycobah.

Both Wagmatcook Chief Norman Bernard and Waycobah Chief Rod Googoo worked with Halfpenny-MacQuarrie on the file since 2016. Both communities pooled their resources to build the courthouse.

Googoo has no regrets. Several repeat offenders have benefited from community-based counselling and have since found employment, said Googoo. He also said Halfpenny-MacQuarrie deserves most of the credit for ultimately bringing the community closer together.

“I don’t know where she gets all the energy and she’s just awesome, a driving force,” said Googoo. “If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have that courthouse. She really believes in integrating our native customs of doing things with modern justice.

“For First Nations people the courtroom can be a very intimidating experience, an environment that you’re not accustomed to. This has changed everything.”

Sarah Baddeley, chairwoman of the Halifax branch of LEAF, said Halfpenny-MacQuarrie was the ideal keynote speaker for Friday’s event celebrating Persons Day, a day recognizing and realizing full personhood before the law, she said.

“Her ability to listen and empower people in communities by taking a step back and listening, it goes a long way,” said Baddeley.

“Many people aren’t aware of the struggles Indigenous people face in accessing justice in Nova Scotia. People also aren’t aware of the wonderful work that’s being done to try to achieve reconciliation and it’s so important to highlight leaders like Halfpenny-MacQuarrie, people working hard on the ground to make a difference.”