Yukon landscape.

Pathways: Dena Keh Justice draws on Kaska culture to bring restorative justice

May Stewart says knocking on the door will only get you so far. Someone has to let you in.

The Dene Keh Justice Director, May says the Liard First Nation was knocking on the door of the Department of Justice for years before anyone answered. She says Kelly Allen and Joanne Green of the Community Justice Wellness Team opened the door. 

“We were standing there knocking for a long time and Kelly said, ‘hey, we need their input’,” May says. “We really have to acknowledge the work Kelly and Joanne have done for us – they opened the door to the court system.”

She says without them, the community would still be struggling. 

Liard First Nation’s Dena Keh Justice (Our People’s Way) is a community-based, alternative justice program. It uses a holistic approach to restore harmony within the community, based on the Liard First Nation’s way.


Restoring community harmony

Justice Worker Daniel Dick says Dena Keh Justice is about empowering the Kaska Nation to assume greater responsibility for administering justice within the community. 

“We want to create a fair and inclusive justice system that meets our needs,” he says. “Our focus is to help people go through the justice system, take responsibility for their actions and help them start their healing journey.” 

May says Elders are the foundation of the program. As knowledge keepers, they guide the healing journey.  

“Elders bring support, understanding, life experiences and traditional context to the process," she says. "They help the harmer acknowledge their actions and work with them to change their behaviour and restore community harmony."


Liard First Nation’s Dene Keh Justice team. Back row: Georgina Smith, May Stewart, Melissa Charlie, Daniel Dick (L-R). Front row: Brandy Tizya, Nicole Poppe (L-R)
Liard First Nation

A cultural lens

May says the program brings Kaska culture to the forefront of the justice process. 

“The Western world of justice doesn’t work for our people – they don’t understand the system and harmers aren’t made accountable,” she says.

In the Dena Keh Justice system, victims have a central role in restoring harmony and the person that did the harm speaks for themselves. May says it can be a more meaningful process for everyone. 

“With our culture and community justice, the responsibility lies on the person who did the harm,” she explains. “They have to take accountability and responsibility for their actions and make things right with their victims.”

Building a strong justice process

It took a lot of work and trust to build the Dena Keh program.

Kelly says without May and her team’s leadership, support, and devotion to address the Kaska community’s needs, none of this would have been possible. May says community involvement makes the program successful. 

“It’s important that both the harmer and the victim trust the system,” she says. “They need to feel that they're going to get good results and they're going to be happy with the outcome.” 

One piece of advice May offers to other nations trying to build their own program is to let Elders guide the process.

“It’s important to include knowledge keepers – Elders and youth – in building a strong justice process,” she says. “People trust our Elders and their knowledge. They ensure we are using our cultural ways and traditions.” 

Now that the door is open, Joanne Green says her Justice Wellness Centre team is consulting with other communities about how to create more alternative justice programs. 

Joanne says her role is to support the communities and let them create the systems that fit their needs.

“I think lots of communities are talking about creating justice programs,” she says. ”We’ve done some proactive work with communities, but it’s really our job to wait for them to come to us rather than the other way around.” 

Joanne encourages communities to take their time figuring out what community-led justice looks like to them. She says once they have a plan, she’s ready for them.

Dena Keh Justice

Dena Keh is a community-based alternative justice program based on a circular model of justice and centred around Kaska traditions and values. 

The goal of the process is to:

  • repair the harm done;
  • increase the social justice for victims and the community; and
  • support the harmer to recognize and understand their behaviour then guide the individualized healing.

The process

During the Dena Keh process, the victim, harmer, family and community come together with a Dena Keh trained facilitator in a family group conference. 

At the conference, the victim has the opportunity to be heard, while the harmer is able to acknowledge and restore their wrong. The family and community are also given space to voice their concerns and feelings. 

At the end, the harmer takes responsibility for their actions and is held accountable. An agreement is created by the participants to repair the harm done. 

The outcome

After the Dena Keh process, the harmer returns to court and a judge decides whether to stay the proceedings or proceed with criminal charges. 

A harmer doesn’t receive a criminal record if they go through the Dena Keh process and completes their agreement. 

However, if they don’t complete their agreement they will return to the criminal justice system and will receive a conventional sentence, which could include a fine, jail time or probation.  

Yukon landscape.
Read more of the Pathways magazine
Read more

Give us your feedback