Wagmatcook celebrates grand opening of courthouse
Nova Scotia has made a step toward reconciliation with the Indigenous community through the opening of a one-of-a-kind justice centre.
The Wagmatcook courthouse was officially opened Thursday in conjunction with National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The facility follows one of the 82 recommendations made in the Royal Commission on the prosecution of Donald Marshall Jr. It also responds to Calls to Action outlined in the 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Premier Stephen McNeil delivered a special message to family members of Marshall Jr. who were in attendance.
The late Membertou man was sentenced to life in prison at age 17 for a murder he didn’t commit.
“I can never imagine having suffered what your parents suffered for watching one of their children be denied basic rights in a province they believed in, to be incarcerated for 11 years for no other reason than the system was rooted in racism and discrimination and nobody was listening,” said McNeil.
“A country that would let you go to war for them, let you go defend the principles of them, but was not there to stand with their family when they required it. There is no way; there are no words that I can say to re-change that.”
Wagmatcook is now considered the first Aboriginal wellness and Gladue court in the province.
A wellness court attempts to identify and address the root cause of the offending behaviour and develop a recovery support plan that links people to services.
Meanwhile, a Gladue court, named after 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision, is meant to consider broader issues facing Aboriginal people such as the intergenerational trauma of residential schools.
As part of Thursday’s ceremonies, an eagle feather was given to Judge Laurie Halfpenny MacQuarrie who now presides over the provincial court in Wagmatcook.
The symbol of Mi’kmaw culture was brought forward by one of the lawyers who represented Marshall Jr. in overturning his conviction.
“We are a community of relationships — that’s what I have learned from the Mi’kmaw community,” said Halfpenny MacQuarrie. “It is those relationships that have brought us here today.”
Members of Marshall Jr.’s family toured the courtroom located on the lower level of the Wagmatcook Culture and Heritage Centre. The facility first began hearing criminal matters on April 4.
“It is hard to put into words the harm done to our family — my parents, my brothers and sisters, our children, our community of Membertou and our Mi’kmaw nation — through the wrongful conviction and life sentence of Junior,” said David Marshall, the brother of Donald Marshall Jr.
“It is horrible to have someone you love locked up, but it is beyond tragic when you know they are innocent. We suffered the crimes committed against him by the Canadian justice system greatly. It changed our lives in uncountable ways.”
The Marshall family says Donald Marshall Jr.’s treatment generated fear and mistrust, especially toward police, lawyers, judges and jails.
David Marshall said he hopes to see the implementation of additional recommendations generated from the almost 30-year-old inquiry into his brother’s wrongful conviction.
“I truly hope the only time the Marshall family will come before you judges is to celebrate such events, but I do feel that if we did come before this court today we would be treated with the dignity and respect that my brother deserved, that we all deserve.”
This is believed to be the first time a superior court in a Canadian province will hold regular sittings in a First Nations community.
The Wagmatcook court features a circular design that is representative of Aboriginal healing circles and reflects its unique approach to justice. It will be home to both provincial and Supreme Court sittings and will serve residents of Wagmatcook, Waycobah and Victoria County.
As part of its establishment, the federal government has contributed $157,000 to the project. The courthouse is expected to address transportation challenges for residents of Victoria County who are required appear in court.
Marlys Edwardh, a retired Canadian civil rights lawyer who helped vindicate Donald Marshall Jr., carries a repatriation feather on behalf of Marshall’s family. A sacred symbol of First Nations culture, the feather was later presented to presiding provincial court judge Laurie Halfpenny MacQuarrie during the official opening of the court on Thursday at the Wagmatcook Culture and Heritage Centre.
Members of the Nova Scotia judiciary, including presiding judge for Wagmatcook, Laurie Halfpenny MacQuarrie, from left, Warren Zimmer and Lawrence O’Neil, attended the grand opening of the province’s newest courthouse believed to be the first time a superior court in a Canadian province will hold regular sittings in a First Nations community.