Akwesasne Court Law Comes Into Force

Seskehko:wa/September 6, 2016

August 12, 2016 marked a momentous occasion for the Mohawks of Akwesasne when the community’s Akwesasne Tekaia’torehthà:ke Kaianerenhsera (Akwesasne Court Law) came into force. The Akwesasne Court Law sets out the principles, powers and authorities of the Akwesasne Court. This exercise of self-government is a landmark achievement for First Nations across Canada as it is the first aboriginal court created, sanctioned and enacted by an aboriginal community.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Court can trace its beginnings to the early 1970s. For the first twenty years of existence, the court operated within the limits of the Indian Act, not only with respect to the appointment of justices of the peace, but also in the limited remedies available and the limited by-laws that could be heard. Such by-laws at that time required the approval of the Minister of Indian Affairs.

The Akwesasne Court Law has some remedies and sanctions in line with what one may expect to be ordered from a provincial or federal court; however, the newly-sanctioned law is unique: it is a combination of Mohawk values/principles and structural components of Canadian adversarial justice. In accordance with traditional principles, the Akwesasne Court Law presents a vision focused on restorative justice for offenders and victims. This illustrates an approach to justice that promotes the well-being of the community as a whole. Additionally, the Court Law ensures a Mohawk Justice from Akwesasne will hear cases and community members can choose to have court proceedings conducted in either English or Mohawk.

On a practical level, the Akwesasne Court Law also means less congestion in the nearby provincial courts, as it provides the Mohawks of Akwesasne with the possibility of having their matters heard in their own court.

The law focuses on restorative justice and rehabilitation as the primary remedial tools. These positive implications also extend beyond the Akwesasne community. As a result of the courts ability to utilize alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, the outcome facilitates a reduced need for the incarceration of community members in federal or provincial facilities. This wholistic view to rehabilitate the individual without incarceration will ultimately save money.

Over the past few years, Akwesasne has, as an independent First Nation, asserted the right to make decisions regarding judicial institutions.  Although the concept of a First Nations Court is not a novel idea, the Akwesasne Court is the first indigenous court that has been developed by a First Nation community using restorative justice principles

The Mohawks of Akwesasne have been working for decades to implement a justice system within the community. With the Akwesasne Court Law coming into fruition, this represents a significant step not only for Akwesasne, but for all First Nation communities across Canada.