Nanaimo’s Indigenous Justice Centre opens, specializing in supporting First Nations clients | Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper

Nanaimo’s Indigenous Justice Centre opens, specializing in supporting First Nations clients

Nanaimo, BC

Since January, Nanaimo's Indigenous Justice Centre has been taking on First Nation, Métis, and Inuit clients to provide free legal services and support in child protection and criminal justice matters. The centre, now fully operational, also provides wrap-around services, inter-agency coordination, and cultural support with an elder-in-residence.

“[We’re] trying to make this a warm, welcoming space for the community that offers culturally appropriate justice services to support our people,” said Judith Sayers, a director with the B.C. First Nations Justice Council. “We're trying to make this kind of a wraparound hub.”

Nanaimo’s IJC, located in the Great National Landing Building in the core of the city's downtown, is one of nine fully operational centres across B.C. With five regional centres operating in Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Surrey, and Kelowna, and four smaller IJC’s located in Merritt, Chilliwack, Prince George and Prince Rupert, the justice council expects six more smaller locations to open this year.

Sayers shared that a Campbell River IJC will open later this year.

“We haven't had this kind of service; people go without support, and they end up with a legal aid lawyer,” said Sayers. “We're trying to specialize in lawyers that are… hopefully, Indigenous, or are really familiar with Indigenous people.”

Since the implementation of IJCs across the province, they have been well sought out. In 2024 alone, the centres made 207 referrals to services, agencies, and collaborators, while staff lawyers are currently supporting 300 legal clients and 50 outreach clients.

As of March 1, eligibility requirements for IJCs were updated to include those who qualify for legal aid. Prior to this change, those who qualified for legal aid were directed to Legal Aid BC. But now, according to Natalie Martin, director of communications for BCFNJC, Indigenous people who qualify for legal aid can choose between a legal aid or IJC lawyer.

In 2021 the BCFNJC took over Gladue services from legal aid, which entails a report that can be requested for consideration in pre-sentencing or a bail hearing for Indigenous clients. Since then the justice council has increased the yearly production from 120 Gladue reports (based on an 11-year average), to an average of 383 reports annually.

“B.C. has fully funded this as part of our Justice Strategy,” said Sayers. “[We’re] very happy that B.C. came across the money to open these 15 centres.”

Funding to expand the IJCs from four fully operational centres to 15 was announced in the 2023 Budget, with an investment of $44 million. While in 2022, a tripartite memorandum of understanding was signed to support the implementation of IJCs with a commitment of $8.9 million over a period of five years.

“I really feel it's important…to make sure that we have Indigenous faces in the centres as well, to help facilitate the feelings of safety and cultural support,” said Juanita Tate of Nisga’a Nation, office manager for the Nanaimo IJC.

As soon as the doors were pulled open to Nanaimo’s IJC, Indigenous artwork adorned the windows and walls throughout the entire three-story space, with soundproof pods for intake and a cozy blue living room area with a fireplace and toys for children to play.

“We have a whole team that can provide that support, whether it's a first offense, or a second, or a very serious criminal offense,” said Tate, noting that currently the focus at the centre is on criminal and child protection matters, though, they hope to soon include family law too.

The implementation of IJC’s fill in the gaps in the justice system with holistic and wrap-around supports, Tate shared with Ha-Shilth-Sa.

“They can get everything they need in one place, and that’s rare,” she added.

If a family member is worried about their loved one who is navigating the legal system, they can also reach out for support at the Nanaimo IJC, shared Tait.

“I feel that it's very important to reduce the number of Indigenous who are involved in the prison system,” said Tate.

Share this: