Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 42: Justice (25-42)

New Indigenous Justice Centre in Nanaimo offers culturally responsive services

May 3, 2024

NationTalk: Nanaimo News Now

NANAIMO — A long vacant heritage building in Nanaimo’s downtown transitioned to what looks nothing like a traditional law office. 

It was done by design. 

Occupying the Great National Land Building at 17 Church St. is one of five new regional Indigenous Justice Centres (IJC) operated by the BC First Nations Justice Council (BCFNJC) to open this year. 

Since January, complimentary legal, outreach and referral support services have been provided at the Nanaimo location.

“Anyone that walks into our centre who self identifies as Metis, Inuit or a First Nation of B.C will get legal help from us,” Natalie Martin, BCFNJC communications director told NanaimoNewsNOW.

As of March 1, all Indigenous peoples qualify for IJC services, regardless if they qualify for legal aid. 

Martin said all issues involving criminal justice and family legal issues are handled by the IJC. 

She said an inviting, non-intimidating setting with gathering areas and locally sourced Indigenous art at the Nanaimo location creates an atmosphere of warmth during what can be an extremely stressful time.

First Nations art graces the walls of the Indigenous Justice Centre in Nanaimo, including octopus bags created by Métis artists Lisa Spheherd, Kaija Heitland and Mallory Blondeau. The bags were traditionally used to hold small personal items. (Ian Holmes/NanaimoNewsNOW)

In 2022 the province committed to long-term funding of a total of 15 IJC locations around the province, in addition to an existing virtually conducted IJC serving Indigenous clients across B.C. 

Last year 500 clients received legal services through the then four existing IJC locations in Chilliwack, Merritt, Prince George and Prince Rupert, as well as a virtual service, according to the BCFNJC. 

Nanaimo joined Victoria, Vancouver, Surrey and Kelowna to have IJC locations established this year, while Martin said a third Vancouver Island location is planned for the north Island area. 

Martin said in addition to a team of several in-house staff lawyers at their Nanaimo location, resource support workers help in other ways. 

“Maybe it’s housing, maybe there’s additions or mental health treatments centres that someone can get connected to, at the same time as they’re connected to a staff lawyer who will then represent them in court or in any other way that they need to be represented.”

Martin said a key strategy of the IJC network is helping to divert cases away from the courts wherever possible. 

Community-level, Indigenous led solutions are aimed at reforming the justice system, while also infusing First Nation legal traditions, Martin said. 

“The strategy is a commitment from the province and from the 204 First Nations in British Columbia to come together and to fix the crisis of over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.”

According to BC Corrections, Indigenous people account for about 33 per cent of people in provincial custody, while comprising of nearly six per cent of the province’s adult population. 

An open house of the IJC in Nanaimo was held on Thursday, May 2.

More information on Indigenous Justice Centres can be found here. 

Main lobby area of the Indigenous Justice Centre in Nanaimo. (Ian Holmes/NanaimoNewsNOW) 

On Twitter: @reporterholmes