BRIDGING CULTURES TO IMPROVE FIRST NATION JUSTICE IN CANADA: THE WORK OF RUPERT ROSS

Stephen M. Sachs*

 Rupert Ross has produced three important volumes over 22 years reflecting his learnings as he undertook essential work in bridging aboriginal and settler culture to make major contributions toward improving Crown justice for First Nations people in Canada, and in facilitating healing among first Nations Peoples. The books are: Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality (Reed Books Canada, 1992); Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice (Penguin Books, 1996); and Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional  Paths (Penguin Canada, 2014). These volumes have been well received by First Nations people across Canada and are used widely in classes at Canadian universities.  There is now a major Canadian Justice annual award named for Rupert Ross.

 Ross was brought up in Northern Ontario, and among other things, spent twelve years there as a fishing guide with some interchanges with Indigenous people, and experience in Nature that gave him some insight into the ways of the regions band societies developed from their relationships with the land. On becoming a crown assistant prosecutor dealing with criminal cases of aboriginal people of bands in Northern Ontario, he quickly perceived that there was a huge cultural gulf, and mutual lack of understanding, between the mainstream court personnel and the First Nations people, which very often led to considerable injustice. As a result, Ross spent extended time with band leaders and elders to gain an understanding of their cultures and justice needs, while facilitating First Nations people in perceiving the rational and reasoning of the Canadian courts, which quite often produced decisions damaging to First Nations and their members.

 Among Ross's learnings was that Indigenous societies over thousands of years had long ago gained understandings of human psychology that Western psychologists were only just learning. That included that treating individuals in isolation is most often insufficient, because individuals are interacting actors within relationships. Their actions are social in nature. All those involved in an extended web of relations are impacted by the acts of each person in that interacting web, and if a person is doing harm, usually healing must involve the others in the relationship as well. An important aspect of this is the aboriginal understanding that taking a community member out of a community does a double harm. It removes a valuable member and their contributions from the community, while in their isolation in an alien jail they learn little, and often grow worse in their pathology. In the aboriginal restorative view, when someone does harm, or acts out improperly, what is needed are teachings and healing. Ross coming to understand this brought him to be a major contributor to developing Canadian Court alternative punishment programs in which, in many cases, those convicted of a crime within a community can undertake a healing/learning program with elders within the community rather than going to jail. Further, Ross intimates a number of times across his writings that Western courts could learn much from the Aboriginal restorative justice approach.

 In the first volume, Dancing with A Ghost, Ross undertakes a holistic examination of Aboriginal band culture, showing how it developed from long experience of small, extended families interrelating with their environment for survival and living well in often difficult conditions. There Ross sets forth a set of First Nation basic cultural principles. As the volumes unfold the story of his ongoing learning, in the second volume, he adds a major aboriginal principle missed in the first, largely because of the cultural damage done to First Nations and their members by colonialism, most particularly from the boarding school experience. Ross develops the harms that have been inflicted by colonialism, varying in extent in different communities and in different people. A major theme of the entire work is attaining aboriginal healing, most developed in the last volume. A major contribution of Indigenous Healing is a discussion of a number of the First Nation healing programs that have been undertaken across Canada, in communities and by organizations. As on other topics in the three volumes, Ross presents numerous statements by elders in the course of setting forth the underlying principles of successful and promising healing programs, with an analysis of what makes them successful. A major point, is that each community is unique and needs to work out what is best for its own restoration. An important understanding is that for healers to be successful, they first need to undertake their own healing. This was exemplified by one community's effort which began with several years of the healers facilitating each other's healing before they began collaborating with others in furthering their restoration.

*Stephen M. Sachs is Senior Editor of Indigenous Policy. An applied philosopher with a home in Political Science, he is the coordinating editor and lead drafter of the four volumes of Honoring the Circle: Ongoing Learning from American Indians on Politics and Society and, with LaDonna Harris and Barbara Morris, of Recreating the Circle: The Renewal of American Indian Self-Determination.

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