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Corralling alternative justice

Cross Examined
|Written By Kelly Harris

Newly appointed Alberta Provincial Court Judge Eugene Creighton has rodeo coursing through his veins. A member of the Blood Tribe and Kainai First Nation, Creighton no longer calf ropes, however, he does compete in team roping. But today it is a justice system of fines and incarceration he hopes to corral, in favour of one seeking alternative measures to improve the chances of success for aboriginals.

Alberta Provincial Court Judge Eugene Creighton
While rodeo is still in his blood, at 60, Creighton finds it hard to compete with the younger breed of cowboys, preferring to calf rope at the less formal “jackpot” rodeos. “I mostly go to jackpots because rodeos are a little too quick for me, I’m getting up there in the years,” he says.

One place where the younger set won’t want to tangle with the judge is in the courtroom. He has seen it all. A product of the residential school system, a former prison guard, and probation officer, there is no doubt the judge has heard all the excuses. But it doesn’t stop him from looking for new ways to straighten out the defendants who’ve gone off course that he’ll be seeing before him.

A staunch believer in alternative justice, when dealing with aboriginal defendants Creighton will advocate for a peacemaker approach with his colleagues on the bench. “Hopefully I can really start enhancing the issues of alternative sentencing and peacemaking. And really, maybe, shed some light with my brothers and sisters on the bench that there are, probably are, better alternatives for First Nations dealing with their issues . . . it’ll take time.”

Creighton is more than ready to face the challenge. Alternative justice has been a constant theme in his life going back to when he first began working as a probation officer in Southern Alberta when he was 23 years old. Alberta Justice had just begun a program where offenders could choose to work off their fines by doing community service. The Blood Tribe had no such program, so the young probation officer took it to his band’s leadership. “I remember distinctly going into council and asking them to have some of their entities or departments co-operate, work with us, and try and set up this fine alternative program,” he says. “That worked pretty good and I had full support from the tribe and the agencies.”

It was during his time as a probation officer that Creighton started seriously considering a legal career. He had met several judges, lawyers, and prosecutors who gave him career advice. So at 32, Creighton set a goal for himself, which to some would seem as lofty as the Rocky Mountains. He finished his undergraduate degree taking some of his courses at the University of Lethbridge, a school that overlooks the Oldman River and the Kainai First Nation not far from the correctional facility where he worked as a guard.

He applied to and was accepted at five western-Canadian law schools, choosing the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He articled in Hobbema and Wetaskiwin in central Alberta. Then he was called home to the windswept grasslands in the south. The Kainai nation is the largest in terms of land mass in Canada. More than twice the size of Calgary or Toronto, it touches Big Sky Country to the south, the Oldman River to the east, and the Rocky Mountains to the west. At the time, the nation was greatly subject to non-aboriginal institutions.

Creighton spent eight years as in-house counsel to the Blood Tribe. He focused on creating systems in which the people of the nation provide services to each other and run successful businesses. Creighton embraced “the whole idea that First Nations in Canada be allowed to take over their educational programs.” He created societies, arm’s-length entities, and corporations controlled by boards, allowing the First Nations’ council to deal with the important issues of treaty negotiations. “I designed the Blood Tribe education system,” he says. “I created a legal entity, created a school board, and applied to the minister to transfer jurisdiction to the school board.”

The education system took shape and today the nation of more than 10,000 has a high school, a middle school, and two elementary schools. This has allowed for members of the tribe to take over the running of the school; two of the superintendents have been members of the Blood Tribe. “There’s 110 teachers and probably 60 per cent are native. Of those 60 per cent, 70 or 80 per cent are Blood members,” says Creighton.

Health care and other business entities followed with Creighton taking roles in advising how to set up boards to be self-governing and avoid the chance or perception of influence from council. In 1989, Creighton returned to his criminal justice roots helping to set up a correctional facility on the reserve to deal with non-violent offences, including impaired driving and shoplifting.

In 1994, Creighton decided he was going to hit the dusty trail and put out his shingle. It was then the Calgary law firm Walsh Wilkins LLP came calling. While not the largest firm in the city, Walsh Wilkins had experience working with First Nations and asked Creighton to join its newly formed aboriginal law group. The office had three native lawyers  along with other staff and it grew from there. Creighton’s work focused on governance, corporate-commercial law, oil and gas, and First Nations taxation. In 1999, he became a partner and a couple years later, Walsh Wilkins added Creighton’s name to its marquee.

He left the firm in April after being named the third aboriginal judge in the history of the Alberta court. He is the only judge to hail from the Kainai Nation. Creighton will sit in the Calgary region including circuit courts in the Siksika Nation, T’suu Tina Nation, and Cochrane and Canmore bordering the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.

From his perch as a provincial court judge he’ll be able to witness the inequity in the number of aboriginal defendants appearing before him. According to a recent Correctional Service of Canada report, aboriginal inmates make up for more than 60 per cent of federal prisoners in the prairie provinces. The report also says the percentage for provincial inmates is even more skewed.

Successive reports have called for alternatives to the traditional fine and incarceration model of justice for aboriginal offenders; culturally based form of rehabilitation and peacemaking. The reforms have been slow to come. That may be why Creighton embraces the challenges of presiding on the bench, hoping to make the law and justice, “more effective and make more sense.”