Inside the Aboriginal Courtroom in the Calgary Courts Centre

Form meets function in this unique space where First Nations restorative justice is designed to flourish in partnership with the Western judicial system.

Photography by Jared Sych

When you first walk into Courtroom 1800 in the Calgary Courts Centre, it feels like any other courtroom: there are two small conference rooms used by lawyers and their clients on each side of the vestibule; the security features attract your attention without offering any surprise; and the dark wood panelling lining the entryway and courtroom itself announces the formality of the room and the gravity of its function.

But Courtroom 1800, also known as the Aboriginal Courtroom, is unlike any other courtroom in the building. Indeed, it is unlike any other courtroom in the country.

When a new courthouse was originally proposed for Calgary, it included the Aboriginal Courtroom, a place where First Nations advocates and the accused could work with Alberta’s court system and negotiate respectful relationships, cultural interpretation and a First Nations approach to law called “restorative justice.” A disproportionate number of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people are incarcerated in Canada, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all admissions into correctional services. Part of the planners’ intent was to try to address this imbalance through a culturally sensitive marriage of two different approaches – First Nations and Western – to justice issues.

The Tsuu T’ina Nation Court uses Courtroom 1800 on the first and third Friday of every month for hearings and sentencing circles, as well as special occasions such as Law Day in April, says Dodi Hodgson, an administrative assistant with dispute resolution services in the centre’s civil mediation department. The courtroom is also used to familiarize courthouse staff with traditional practices of First Nations people.

The size and shape of Courtroom 1800 lends itself to an additional function as a classroom and meeting space and is used for that purpose three or four times a month. As well, courthouse staff occasionally meet with the assistant deputy minister of justice in the space, says Hodgson. The additional use was no accident, but rather built into the design.

Beginning in 2004, Bill Chomik, senior principal with Kasian Architecture and Interior Design, collaborated with a group of judges and the Alberta government, among others, to design and build the Calgary Courts Centre, which opened in 2007. The precedent-setting building is the largest courthouse in Canada. The mostly concrete, steel and glass structure includes many post-9/11 security features and hosts 73 courtrooms, judicial chambers and other facilities.

One of Chomik’s most interesting projects involved his collaboration with First Nations Elders and others on the specific design of Courtroom 1800. “We wanted to be respectful and creative in designing a special place, so we consulted with judges, First Nations and Mtis communities, representatives from the Tsuu T’ina Peacemaker Centre and Elders from various communities, and we listened,” says Chomik. “We knew we wanted to build a space that held universal First Nations principles, and it had to be large and flexible enough to accommodate Aboriginal justice.”

Chomik modelled the courtroom on the ceremonial teepee, a deceptively sophisticated conical form of architecture. Teepees were once used as lodgings and made from materials that could be quickly disassembled and transported. They continue to be used today for ceremonies and occasional dwellings. The traditional teepee features a circular structure with a fire in the centre, an altar for smudge and an opening at the top, which allows for the release of smoke. The circular shape encourages healthy air circulation within the living and ceremonial space. Poles support the exterior covering, made traditionally of buffalo hides, though canvas is widely used today. Door openings face the rising sun.


For comparison, the Supreme Court of Canada’s traditional courtroom.

By comparison, Courtroom 1800 features a round granite hearth representing the teepee’s fire in the middle of a circle-patterned carpet. Teepee pole motifs on the ceiling mimic the teepee’s structural poles radiating outward from the centre. The traditional smoke hole is represented by a huge fan that ventilates smoke from the occasional sweetgrass smudge.

“We had to get all kinds of allowances and exceptions to variances for this unique space,” says Chomik, referring mainly to the need to burn sweetgrass in the courtroom, which provincial building codes disallowed.

“We tried to make a space with softer colours that was not intimidating, [but rather] comfortable and non-hierarchal. The space allows for participants to sit as equals, eye-to-eye, unlike the traditional courtroom design where there are clear lines of separation and intimidation for those facing the justice system.”

Chomik says the team researched other First Nations courtrooms in Saskatoon and toured the Tsuu T’ina reserve for ideas, taking part in a smudging ceremony and learning about the Aboriginal justice process. “Restorative justice is about bringing harmony back to the community with a focus on healing and positive initiatives and coming together on common solutions,” he says.

In addition to the teepee structure and the ceremonial smudging altar in the middle, the Aboriginal Courtroom includes other features meant to emulate a traditional Aboriginal justice venue. A large round table can be used in court hearings or removed and stored to allow for the judge, lawyers, security, court personnel, Elders, victims, families and their supporters to sit in a circle.

“The circle model and teepee speak to governance, or Aakaak’tsimaan, in terms of Blackfoot cultural values and practicality,” says Dr. Reg Crowshoe, a Piikani Blackfoot Elder and former chief of the Piikani Nation. “The teepee design perfectly meets the needs of our traditional society. For example, the circular shape is constructive for face-to-face communication by promoting a sense of equity and participation and consensus in discussions and decision-making. There is nowhere to hide in a circle.”

Crowshoe worked with the justice system to introduce Aboriginal sentencing circles in the 1970s and ’80s. The teepee models were later used on an ad hoc basis in various courtrooms to mete out justice and prevent many from reoffending. “The circle represents all things connected in the universe, the four directions, the four seasons, the four elements, the four sacred medicines and so on,” says Crowshoe. “The opening at the top of the teepee also allows for constant visual contact with the sky world as well, the above-beings, heaven and the Creator of all living things. The fire serves as a source of heat and spirit shared by anyone in the teepee. The fire represents the essence of being, the life force and the connecting link between the worlds above and below the earth’s surface.”

Some of these rich symbols of First Nations spirituality were directly incorporated into Chomik’s design for Courtroom 1800. “First Nations don’t undertake justice the same way we do,” says Chomik. “It’s based on restoration, not necessarily punishment, which requires a different approach to dispute resolution where, for example, families come together on a civil or criminal matter to talk and listen around a medicine wheel – or a round table on a carpet that depicts the medicine wheel – and its four directions depicted by the colours red, blue, yellow and white. A lot of different dispute resolution measures take place [in Courtroom 1800] that other courts don’t have.”

But depicting First Nations iconography in the courtroom obviously only scratches the surface of cultures with great depth and breadth. Representing the spiritual, even mystical, side of these cultures in the design should have been a far greater challenge, but, the more Chomik worked with the Elders, the more he was drawn into the depth of meaning behind the symbol.

“The teepee was one of the places in which important discussions were held and decisions made in traditional Blackfoot society,” says Crowshoe. “However, taken as a whole, the teepee is symbolic of the sphere of interconnected life forms and energy forces, levels of existence, that make up the universe – all that is seen and unseen, in the waters and in the clouds, as well as those walking on the earth or living below its surface. It is based on Kimmapiipi’tsin, or, ‘Sanctified Kindness.'”

In other words, the teepee is not merely a clever structure, but a sacred form, one that connects its user – or, in this case, the accused in Courtroom 1800 – to a complete spiritual system, outside of which the misconduct the accused has been charged with makes no sense.

As Crowshoe says, Kimmapiipi’tsin works for good to those that honour it. Today, the Tsuu T’ina Nation Court, which is a government entity, not a physical space, uses Courtroom 1800 for sentencing circles and special occasions. This judicial entity grew out of the Tsuu T’ina Nation Court and Peacemaker initiative, the first organization to try to marry Aboriginal justice traditions with the Provincial Court of Alberta in a new judicial program. Participants in the court – the judge, Crown prosecutor, judicial clerks and peacemakers – are all Aboriginal people. Long before Calgary’s new courthouse was even built, this Aboriginal court sat for its first session in October 2000, when it was held in chief and council chambers.

Ellery Starlight, an elected tribal councillor with the Tsuu T’ina Nation, was the coordinator of the Tsuu T’ina Peacemaker program from 1999 to 2010 and worked with Chomik on the design of Courtroom 1800. “It took a lot of time. It took a lot of consultation, education, a lot of persuasion – even among our people,” says Starlight. “But peacemaking was guided by the Elders and validated by community. Most of the knowledge, the foundation and the process of restorative justice come from Tsuu T’ina experience and laws.

“The process was serious and, in many ways, more difficult because offenders are made to face and accept the harms they have caused. The victims that participate often find the process much more satisfying and empowering than usual justice procedures. There’s often less fear and trauma after taking part in a healing circle.”

Willie Littlechild is from the Ermineskin First Nation, within the Maskwacs Territory near Edmonton, and a lawyer who serves as international chief for treaties 6, 7 and 8. He’s also a special rapporteur to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and vice-chair of the UN Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He has also served as a chief, a Member of Parliament and a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation commission that wrapped up its hearings last year and released its final report in December 2015.

“Reconciliation is about respect,” says Littlechild. “We need a holistic approach because each aspect of ceremony has structure and purpose and provides a framework to help guide and sustain life in harmony and balance through respect, discipline, honour, humility, compassion and kindness. Oral traditions and teachings come with a set of rules and procedures or protocols.”

When Littlechild served as the chair for the Saskatchewan Justice Reform Commission in the mid-2000s, he encountered various young offenders who did not respect or honour traditional oral practices, let alone justice in the traditional Western setting. He recalls one occasion when First Nations art and motifs were allowed to be displayed in a Saskatoon courtroom, and the practice offered a sense of belonging. An eagle staff was set up and a smudge was lit. The Cree language was spoken, and Elders were consulted and engaged in proceedings. Littlechild says this created an environment of relevant ceremonial importance, and the offenders were more willing to take part, to listen, to learn and to apologize.

“I think this is a great opportunity to have a space where Aboriginal people can feel comfortable and feel that their identity, protocols and their ceremonies are being honoured,” says Littlechild. “It’s not that we don’t believe in punishing offenses; it’s more important to reconnect our people with natural laws or practices for the survival of a community, to invoke reflection, rules, forgiveness and reintegration into the community based on health, healing and holiness. The smudge invoked respect with those young people and reminds us that our ancestors are all around us, that we must be accountable for reconciliation.”

Starlight adds, “The main goal is to make peace between the victim, the wrongdoer and the community, using the traditional values and beliefs of the Tsuu T’ina people. Our mandate is to resolve problems, study and discover the root causes of the behaviour that led to criminal activity or conflict in the community or among families. We include Elders, support persons, the accused and the victim.”

The peacemaking process usually results in a plan of action that may include restitution, apology, treatment, community service or a traditional feast. “We have a ways to go, but it’s a good start,” Starlight says. “This allows community participation, a sense of ownership, openness, victim participation and offender restitution. It’s a good thing.”

Chomik is also pleased with the result of his effort on the courthouse. “We often went back to Alberta Justice to see how the courtroom was working and what we can learn,” he says. “We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback. The Aboriginal Courtroom is a special place. It truly speaks a different spirit.”

[Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Calgary Courts Centre brought all three judicial levels – the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Provincial Court of Alberta and the Calgary Court of Appeals – together within the same building. The Courts Centre does not house the court of appeals, which sits at TransCanada Pipelines Tower.]

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