In tiny Ahousaht, an isolated Nuu-chah-nulth community off the coast of Tofino, B.C., concepts like the Criminal Code of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are called “European law.” For many on the reserve, which has seen more than its share of tragedy, it remains a foreign justice system, one that has done little to curb a plague of addiction and all its ugly friends: despair, violence, accident, suicide.
This spring, community leaders—concerned by the poisonous impact of addictions, bootlegging and drug dealing—turned their back on modern legal remedies, and drew on the authority of their ancient laws. Hereditary chiefs and traditional law keepers went door-to-door on the Flores Island reserve in a lightning quick sweep of chronic offenders. They issued an edict: get clean or get out.
In all, 32 men and women ranging from 17 to 58 were transported 45 minutes by boat to a disused logging camp on the mainland at Sydney Inlet for eight intense weeks of cleansing, therapy and traditional teaching. Six refused treatment and were ordered to leave the community. Some threatened court action, but they have since backed down.
The RCMP stayed resolutely in the background during the roundup. Some were upset at the forced treatment, but none complained to police, says Sgt. Jeff Preston, RCMP detachment commander for Tofino-Ahousaht. “We had no role whatsoever in determining who was on the list to go,” he says. “We stood back to keep the peace, and to ensure the Charter of Rights was upheld.” This was band business, a collective message from the membership, said elected Chief John O. Frank: “We’ve had enough of your shenanigans. We’re going to take you to a place, whether you like it or not,” he said. “Or, you’re going to remove yourself from the community.”
Whether the roundup and threat of banishment exceeds the band’s authority under the Indian Act or violates band members’ constitutional rights was not a major consideration, says Frank, 60. “It certainly worked before the white man came around,” he said of banishment, “so why wouldn’t it work again?” His brother Dave Frank, Ahousaht’s 63-year-old health services manager, and one of those who helped plan the treatment, admits he doesn’t like banishment. Odds are the troublemakers would end up in cities like Port Alberni or Vancouver, where half the band lives, making trouble for relatives there, he says. Still, the health of the community is paramount, he says. “We’re faced with this Western law that protects individual rights. Our traditional law protects the community as a whole over an individual.”
Traditionally, the Nuu-chah-nulth had an escalating response to crime and chronic anti-social acts, says Dave Frank. First came attempts to help offenders change, he says. “And if that didn’t happen, then this person would be taken out in a canoe, miles offshore, and just let go without a paddle. No water or nothing.” If they drifted ashore in another’s territory, that nation would decide if the offender would be taken in, or sent away.
Such tough love holds appeal for traditionalists in Ahousaht. But, adds Dave Frank with a laugh, “Our chiefs today said we need to refine that a little bit.” Far from casting people adrift, the focus is on support. As Chief Frank put it, “We’re saying, hey, we know you can get onto a better track in life than what you’re doing. Let us help stand you up.”
Ahousaht is not alone in invoking traditional laws like the threat of banishment, a serious punishment in a society where relationships with people, land and the environment are all-important, he says. In Manitoba, both the Peguis First Nation and the Norway House Cree have threatened chronic offenders with banishment.
For Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations—and an Ahousaht hereditary chief—the assertion of traditional justice is long overdue. His recent call to repeal the Indian Act within five years draws from a well of painful personal experience. His village was so dysfunctional when it was in the grip of addictions, he remembers being shocked when he went to the city. “I didn’t understand when adults weren’t fighting out on the streets, or why people just didn’t break out in violence, because it was so common [in Ahousaht],” he told Maclean’s. “When it was bad it was brutal and it was horrific.”
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