AKWESASNE — In late April, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) celebrated the confirmation and appointments of four new Ratiianerenhserakwenienhstha (justices) to the Akwesasne Court.
Alexandra David, Brooke (Mellani) Martin, Rhonda Garrow, and Theresa Thompson successfully completed an intense, 10-week session with the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice (CIAJ).
This session, facilitated through a grant from the Department of Justice Canada, was specifically designed for Akwesasne’s unique circumstances — including community traditions and being situated between three competing legal jurisdictions. In all, 14 community members attended the training, but the successful four met the qualifications and requirements set out by the Akwesasne Review Commission.
The justices appointed to the court are selected by an independent review, evaluating good character, credibility, and reputation in their community. No previous legal education is required, apart from the training and review. Administration of justice through the court is framed by Mohawk values, striving to prioritize healing of the community and involved parties of an offence, to remedy the matter, rather than using penalization and punishment.
The Akwesasne Court officially began its operations in 2016, after extremely lengthy legal and community consultations. It is the first court of its kind in Canada, operating under an independent Indigenous legal system, separate from federal and provincial systems. Currently, the court adjudicates over certain civil offences, including Indian Act Offenses, Akwesasne laws and bylaws, protection orders (peace bonds/skennen orders) and court-ordered mediation services.
“When we went to the community (for consultation) we said, ‘this isn’t a law from a lawyer. It was written by a lawyer at first — but it was really written by you, because it’s your voice coming through the court law.’ So there were four major (community) studies done here… it is a lot of work but we need to ensure the court law is the community law and that it’s acceptable to them,” said MCA director of justice Joyce King.
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Although the court has limited criminal jurisdiction, it is looking to expand.
“(The Akwesasne Court) is going to expand. We are hoping Canada, Ontario, and Quebec will meet with us to negotiate a justice agreement,” she said. “We have already had some preliminary discussions, now we need to come back to the table and see how we are going to do this.”
Currently, someone charged with a criminal offense within the Mohawks of Akwesasne Territory will have their case heard in either the Ontario courts in Cornwall, or at the Quebec courthouse in Valleyfield, Que. Those charged with criminal offenses in the southern portion of Akwesasne are handled within the US court system in northern New York state.
King noted that a justice system has existed in the community since around 1970.
“We had inherent justices of the peace since 2000. And then in 2016, we were able to pass the Akwesasne Court Law, and now we have a foundation for the court,” she said.
King is adamant in sharing the court does not specifically deal with Mohawk peoples.
“When we passed (laws)… we wanted it to say Akwesasne Court. why? Because we are here at Akwesasne and it is just not Mohawks living here. We have Cree and Ojibwe blood, and we have leaseholders on Stanley Island, Hamilton Island,” she explained.
“I am very pleased to have witnessed the swearing in of our four new Ratiianerenhserakwenienhstha (justices),” said MCA Grand Chief Abram Benedict. “They… have been selected to serve our community. Our community is full of jurisdictional challenges but these four dedicated justices will embrace this challenge, exercise our jurisdiction, and protect our community. Congratulations to all!”