June 28, 1996 Halifax Herald

Mi'kmaq Young Offenders Project: making a difference

A few years ago, Barb Donovan, director, Island Alternative Measures Society (IAMS), in concert with the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, approached the Tripartite Forum, of which I was then a member, with the idea of starting a pilot project geared towards involving the five Cape Breton Mi'kmaq communities in a young offenders alternative measures program. After hearing the proactive proposal, and envisioning the eventual extension of something similar to all of Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq communities, I became an enthusiastic supporter and threw my weight behind their request for funding, which was later approved by the full forum. Funding sources are the federal and provincial governments.

One of the prime reason for giving the proposal my unconditional support was that its terms of reference envisioned placing the onus for finding solutions for Mi'kmaq juvenile delinquency problems where it rightly belongs, in the hands of our people. This falls in line with my belief that solutions for the many impoverishing social problems being suffered by First Nation societies must be found and developed within First Nation communities and cannot be found, or imposed, by outsiders. My belief in this ideal is strengthened by the fact that most of the programs invented for, and implemented in, our communities by outside agencies, without our full involvement from the development stage, have failed.

Just how pressing the need was, and is, for Mi'kmaq community involvement in solving Mi'kmaq youth offender problems was nicely stated by IAMS in its 1996 progress report: "The Mi'kmaq Young Offenders Project grew out of IAMS' recognition that the needs of Mi'kmaq youth, in conflict with the law, were not being met."

IAMS was made aware of the need for the Mi'kmaq to take a pro-active approach to crime prevention services in their communities by the fact that its program for non-Native youth was not adequately dealing with young Mi'kmaq's involved in criminal activity. For instance, there was a lack of trained Mi'kmaq mediators, resulting in victim-offender mediation being delivered by non-native IAMS mediators. Although their intentions were noble, the efforts of these non-Native mediators, caused by their lack of knowledge of Mi'kmaq culture and language barriers, unintentionally made the mediation experience more stressful for Mi'kmaq youth.

With funding in place, on April 1, 1995, the Mi'kmaq Young Offenders Project came on stream. Paula Marshall, a graduate of Saint Mary's University, formerly of Chapel Island and now residing in Eskasoni with husband Jay and their two children, was hired as youth worker. Paula was an excellent choice for the position. She is a young person who is filled with a contagious enthusiasm for realizing the goals of the project, and is a believer in self-help solutions. Thus, she threw herself into the job with gusto and, by so doing, has achieved remarkable results in just ten months.

When planning the program, its creators recognized that its success was dependent upon community involvement and voluntarism. To this end, Paula has successfully recruited and arranged training for 14 youth mediator volunteers from the five communities. Paula's assessment of the volunteers: "They have volunteered because they fully support the goals of the project...the level of their commitment for realizing its goals is very high." She has also enlisted the full co-operation and active support of the Unama'ki Tribal Police Force. Members of the Force are involved in all aspects of the program - from promoting its benefits among community residents, to counseling and offering other support services to young offenders.

Paula describes the aims and functions of the Alternative measures program: "It offers an alternative to the formal court process for first-time offenders aged 12 - 17. A Healing Circle is held where the parties involved (youth, police, parents and victim) come together to discuss the offence and come up with an agreement, outlining how the young offender will pay back the community for his/her misdeed. Upon successful completion of the terms of the agreement by the young offender, the police will close the file and the young person will not have a criminal record. We are not there to punish the young people; we are there to help them learn that they always have a choice to choose the right path."

As a measure of the success of the Program to date, I quote from IAMS' progress report's summary: "Thirty referrals have been received in the first 10 months. Police have referred 12 youth to the Alternative Measures Program and probation authorities have referred 18 to the Community Services Order Program... Project statistics show that youth compliance has been excellent. These results are attributed directly to the community membersí efforts in helping to get troubled youth back on the right path..."

Based upon the successes of this and other self-help programs, Paula states: "We need to encourage and motivate our fellow Mi'kmaq to take control of our future. I know, just by having the Mi'kmaq Young Offenders Program in place, that we have made a positive difference in many young lives!"

Hats off to Paula, the Unama'ki Police, IAMS, UNSI, the volunteers, and other participating members of the five communities for making a difference! To promote and strengthen a belief in our ability to solve our culture's social problems is a positive step towards rebuilding Mi'kmaq self-esteem, which is a must for future self-determination!

Daniel N. Paul


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