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Crime as a Spiritual Crisis

Thursday June 12, 2014

Hard, honest discussions between First Nation leaders and members of the legal profession are not common, in my experience, but they do happen.

Such opportunities to hear each other’s perspectives on justice issues can be very valuable, as long as we commit to ongoing learning, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, real change. I have been invited to circles where every participant, no matter what their role or title, was clearly speaking and listening with complete sincerity. But, as well-intentioned as we may be about doing justice ‘better’, sometimes it seems like we are speaking separate languages.

I have noticed this happening at the most fundamental levels. A chief stood up and told a gathering I was at that people who end up in court facing criminal charges “are in a crisis.
And it is a spiritual crisis”.

That chief was right, and I think all of us gathered that day knew it. But although many heads nodded in agreement, they just as well might have been shaking in confusion and refusal.

Spiritual crises are not a subject that Canadian lawyers are trained to think about, and so we have very little knowledge or inclination to encounter such a daunting concept.

To call something spiritual, for me, is just another name for wholeness. To understand a whole person, or the whole problems that we encounter in the criminal justice system, requires much more than the simple addition or analysis of all the ‘parts’ we can think of. All of us are more than meets the eye, the intellect, the human judgment of facts or consequences.

In confronting the crisis of crime, we can either embrace or avoid this truth.

What the justice system offers, at best, to Anishinabe, and to the nations that have upheld Anishinabe life and vitality since the world began, is fairness in fact-finding, equal treatment under Canadian laws, and sensitivity to the circumstances that contribute to the grossly unbalanced reality that is evident to anyone who walks through a courtroom door. We can apply our values, our safeguards and so-called remedies, and our experience to every ‘part’ of the people and problems that our courtrooms accommodate. But we cannot treat the needs of the spirit; we cannot embrace the whole.

I think, as we walk on and hopefully away from the worst injustices of history, that Anishinabe nations will have to decide whether this is good enough, whether Anishinabe who are caught in the spiritual crisis of crime can be justly served by the Canadian system, or whether a true alternative will be nurtured.

It will be important to make these decisions with minds and hearts wide open to how the spirit – how the whole person – is either healed or hurt by the powers that touch it.

In Canada, we have chosen to separate these powers, meaning that our laws, lawyers, and judges, for better or worse, are not meant – perhaps not even allowed – to respond to the whole nature of people and problems.

I understand that this was never so in how Anishinabe laws and leaders responded to the crises that we have come to call crime.

I think, as I witness the dissatisfaction and despair among the Anishinabe who are forced to follow our processes, that there is still a deep yearning for this older, ‘wholer’ way of doing justice.

Of course, Anishinabe and Canadian problems, and approaches, are not entirely distinct; wholeness, as it were, encompasses this shared land, this history, these worldviews and values that can seem at times to be so hopelessly at odds.

I still expect that Anishinabe wisdom, as it regains strength after long years of abuse and disregard, can teach Canadian systems much about how to accept and embrace life’s spiritual dimension. Our country would certainly be better off for this awareness.

But we will never, in the boxes we’ve built up to now, truly engage with the spiritual crisis – or its spiritual solutions – that the chief, in that meeting, so wisely described. I just hope we will somehow grow humble enough to return, as wholly as possible, this heart of crime-fighting to the nations who can do it best.

Have a question for our columnist related to law issues in northern Ontario? E-mail him at:

Simon Owen is a lawyer at Beamish and Associates in Sioux Lookout, and practices primarily in the areas of criminal defence law and community justice initiatives.

These columns represent the personal views of the author alone, and not of any organization that he may be associated with.

Nothing in these columns should be taken as legal advice; please consult a properly instructed lawyer for any legal issues you may have.

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