In 1991 in the community of Teslin located in the southern area of the Yukon composed primarily of aboriginals with the Teslin Tlingit Band, a 42-year-old man pled guilty to the sexual assault of his 13-year-old daughter, indecent assault of another daughter and having sexual intercourse with a 13- year-old foster child. During the time between the plea and sentencing, the man took treatment for his alcohol problems, joined educational sessions on sexual abuse as far away as Winnipeg, as well as attending a weekly “teaching circle” run by the community. When the time came for sentencing, the Crown was the only party that requested punishment, while the sentencing panel recommended a community disposition. Judge Heino Lilles was sitting at Circuit Court at this time. The man’s wife was a victim of sexual abuse and initially felt anger, betrayal and guilt at her husband’s behaviour but took a different position at the time of sentencing. According to Judge Lilles:

“Mrs. P. gave evidence of how the disclosure affected her, but also her observations of the changes in her husband during the past year. They have talked openly about the problem, including the need for both of them to get alcohol treatment. They went to treatment together and both of them, along with the eldest daughter, attend the ‘healing circle’ on a weekly basis.

She described the positive changes in their relationship since the disclosure, including open communication, honesty and truth in their relationship and the courage to stand up and admit that he is an offender. Both mother and daughter support the Tlingit community’s recommendation for a community disposition, feeling that ‘jail will stop the healing that has been going on’, and that the father is an ‘integral part of the healing process for herself’.”

The Teslin community itself, and the sentencing panel also favoured a community disposition, as reported by Judge Lilles:

“Chief Keenan emphasized that the Tlingit attitude towards the sexual abuse of children is that it is not condoned or tolerated. He stated that there is no room in their society for this kind of activity. He testified that the Tlingit focus is not on the removal of the offender from the community but on the healing of both victims and wrongdoer within the community… The offender, victims and the rest of the family must be brought together in the ‘healing circle’ in order to ‘break the cycle of abuse’ which would otherwise tend to repeat itself from one generation to another.”

After learning of the community’s approach to this kind of offence, Judge Lilles said in his judgment:

“It is of interest that it has been only relatively recently that professional psychologists and social workers have begun to fully appreciate the devastating impact of this cycle of abuse. Tlingit custom and tradition have apparently recognized it for centuries. Moreover, as our criminal law focuses primarily on the offender, it is unable to effectively deal with victims, family or the community of the offender…. They have asked for a culturally relevant disposition which would be supportive of family healing, which would denounce abuse of children within the community, and which would encourage other victims and offenders to come forward for treatment and rehabilitation.”

When passing sentence, Judge Lilles agreed with the panel’s recommendations and commented:

“In this case I have heard evidence about the humiliation which accompanies disclosure of an offence like this in a community the size of Teslin. ‘First, one must deal with the shock and then the dismay on your neighbours’ faces. One must live with the daily humiliation, and at the same time seek forgiveness not just from the victims, but from the community as a whole.’ For, in native culture, a real harm has been done to everyone. A community disposition continues that humiliation, at least until full forgiveness has been achieved. A jail sentence removes the offender from this daily accountability, may not do anything towards rehabilitation, and for many will actually be an easier disposition than staying in the community.”

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