Yukon landscape.

Pathways: Creating Indigenous-led programming in the justice system

Joanne Green is modest. As the Manager of the Justice Wellness Centre, it’s her job to keep the lights on, hire staff and get out of the way to let the specialists and the experts do their work. 

In reality, Joanne has empowered her team to reimagine justice and wellness in the territory.

Community programming

For the past four years, Kelly Allen, has worked as a Clinical Counsellor at the Justice Wellness Centre. For the last two years, she has worked with counsellor Joe Migwans and Kwanlin Dün Elder Dianne Smith to bring cultural wellness programs to Yukon communities.

Kelly says the team’s approach goes beyond the initial biopsychosocial spiritual model. 

“We use an Indigenous holistic outlook to assist us in putting aside Western biases and incorporating community Elders’ wisdom, which sparks innate Indigenous ways of healing,” she says. 

Kelly attributes any program successes to putting the Indigenous lens first when working in an Indigenous community. 

Joe and Dianne provide cultural workshops as well as cultural and spiritual counselling to clients, while Kelly offers therapeutic counselling and program support. Joe says for First Nations, culture is the foremost go-to answer for healing. 

“In this time of great change with our culture diminishing so quickly, we need more understanding of our values and the beliefs around education, parenting, ceremony, forgiveness –  just living in connection with community and living in harmony.”

Kelly Allen, Elder Dianne Smith and Joe Migwans stand in front of the water.
Kelly Allen

A broken system

Kelly says it’s essential that we start decolonizing the justice system.

“It's crucial,” says Kelly. “I can say this with certainty because I've been part of justice for many years and I know I’ve been part of the problem in the past.”

Kelly lived in Watson Lake for more than 15 years. She says living in a predominantly First Nation community shaped her practice and shifted her worldview, but acknowledges that she has been part of the problem.

She says as a white, Western-trained counsellor, she’s been groomed to understand the world a certain way. 

“Not only through my schooling and my post-secondary education, but also with government policies, practices and a way of being that comes from a colonial perspective, because that's who we are.” 

Kelly has worked hard to decolonize her work and recognizes this is an ongoing practice. 

“I make sure that anything I do, from a clinical sense, is decolonized and converted into the Indigenous perspective by practising cultural humility and continually checking with community partners like Dene Keh and cultural practitioners Joe and Dianne,” says Kelly. 

Everything the team does, is done to support cultural strength in a healing way.
Kelly Allen

Reconnecting to culture

Joe believes that First Nations culture is just as valid now as it ever was.

“We need to use our values and the beliefs of our people to create wellness,” he says. “We need to create unity through our true cultural values and return to the circle.”

Joe explains that the circle provides equality, healing and inclusion in wellness and brings balance into people’s lives.

He says this approach isn’t new. 

“The work that's being used was left for a long while because of residential schools and colonialism,” says Joe. “We’re re-introducing those ways through the circle.”

Kelly says the culture-focused approach is working, pointing to Liard First Nation’s Dena Keh Justice program, (Our People’s Way)  as a successful example of decolonizing justice and of supporting overall community and cultural wellness.The community-based, alternative justice program uses a holistic approach to restore harmony within the community, based on the Liard First Nation’s way.

Kelly and Joe worked with Kaska Elders to understand how culture, values and beliefs could be integrated into the court system and programming.

Creating true partnerships

In recent years, the government has shifted its language from consulting First Nations to partnerships with First Nations. 

Kelly says it’s an important change but warns that it needs to be done right. 

“Partnership is language that means we're in this together,” she says. “But in order for us to be in it together, we have to understand the historical power imbalance between the government and First Nations”

Kelly says she’s done the research, and for decades experts have been saying the Indigenous perspective should come first. 

“If we're partnering in an Indigenous community, we have to put their culture, their values, their beliefs, their way in front of everything else,” she says. “In order for us to spur healing, or to even facilitate it in any kind of way, it has to be Indigenous-led – that's what true partnership is from a non-colonial lens.” 

Kelly says the Yukon is lucky to have the Justice Wellness Centre and strong leadership who really understands this kind of partnership. 

Joanne says the success of the Justice Wellness Centre wouldn’t be possible without the trust of Mark Daniels, former Director of Court Services. She says he gave her team the space to try to do things differently. 

Thinking about the future of the centre, Joanne says she hopes to build and support community-led alternative justice programs, like Dena Keh Justice.  

“When I look at the growth in self-sufficiency that's happening in Watson Lake after two years, I think that can happen anywhere with the right energy and resources," she says. “I would love to see the First Nations leading justice-related interventions in their community."

Joanne’s team has met with First Nations and communities about developing alternative justice programs.

She’s hopeful that some communities will be knocking on her door soon, but they need time to consider what community-led justice looks like to them.

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