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Legal Ed program reaches out to youth. (Prince George, B.C.).

A culturally-sensitive legal education program is changing the way First Nations youth perceive the Canadian justice system.

For more than 10 years, the Northern Native Public Legal Education program run by the Law Courts Education Society of British Columbia has been trying to build trust.

The program includes support training for teachers, community workshops and presentations to First Nations bands, said northern region coordinator Annette Russell. But the most popular and effective approach has been to put youth face-to-face with people involved in the justice system so they can experience first-hand how it works and what it takes to get involved--for or better or for worse.

"It's really all about choices and consequences," said Russell. "We can choose to be involved in this court system in lots of different ways."

Perry Mitchell knows the justice system "inside and out." He was raised on a First Nations reserve by his stepfather and used to help him steal wine. At the age of 11, he had his first of several encounters with the law.

Now he does outreach with the program to prevent young Aboriginal kids from making the kinds of mistakes he did.

"I wouldn't want any of them to follow the footsteps that I've gone through," said Mitchell, "because life in jail is no life at all."

Standing six feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, Mitchell bears the scars of stab wounds from his time in jail and often uses himself as an example when speaking to kids who think they are tougher than nails.

"[Those who think] they're going to jail and play the big role better think twice," he said "because none of them, are the size of me and I consider myself a small guy in the penitentiary.

"I give them a piece of reality. I don't think they like it very much, but if that's what it takes to help one or two of the kids, we just take it from there."

He said one of the biggest causes of at-risk behavior is drug and alcohol.

"In 14 years of doing time, I've never been sentenced for something that I did sober or clean," he said.

Russell agrees that substance abuse problems often lead to crime--a point she tries to emphasize when speaking to young people.

"It's just everyday people that end up sitting in the accused box, not all psychopathic killers who make a living by contract killing," she said. "It's people who get drunk and stoned and do stupid things they wouldn't normally do."

In addition to setting up talks with ex-offenders, the program introduces youth participants to sheriffs, judges and other court personnel. These include Aboriginal role models who the kids can relate to, said Russell.

It's all part of the effort to change the negative image of the Canadian justice system that young Aboriginal People have.

"I used to believe that the court system in Canada didn't work very well and that it didn't work very well for First Nations people," Russell recalled. But after three-and-a-half years working with the program she thinks Canada's legal system is one of the best in the world.

Russell admits that there is still much room for improvement when it comes to the treatment of First Nations peoples.

But she is encouraged by initiatives like the Northern Native Public Legal Education program.

"I'm seeing the work [being done] to try to bring First Nations communities and First Nations traditions to the table in terms of justice."

Many similar projects are underway across the country One of the goals of the federal government's Youth Justice Renewal Initiative is to help Aboriginal communities develop community-based justice alternatives.
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Title Annotation:Northern Native Public Legal Education program
Author:Lin, Brian
Publication:Wind Speaker
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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