More honours for Cree Justice innovator Donnie Nicholls

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Donnie Nicholls is no stranger to distinction.

In addition to holding three Bachelors and a Masters degree in the fields of economics and law, he also attended the Harvard Business School for Advanced Management Program, received a Cree Nation Achievement Foundation Award in 2012 for advanced scholarship, a Canadian Institute of Conflict Resolution (CICR) Award of Merit in 2013 for his work in the area of mediation and conflict resolution with vulnerable populations, and the CICR Batsinduka Award for Peace in 2017 for his commitment to building the capacity of his people to peacefully resolve conflict through a customized third-party neutral (TPN) program.

Now he can add a new distinction to that list. On July 6, Governor General Julie Payette presented Nicholls with a Meritorious Service Decoration (MSD) by for his innovative work in youth crime prevention during a ceremony in Quebec City.

The MSD is one of the highest distinctions an individual can receive in Canada.The civilian division of the program recognizes individuals who have performed an exceptional deed or activity in any field that sets an example for others to follow, or improves the quality of life in a community, from advocacy initiatives and health-care services to research and humanitarian efforts. The civilian decorations were created in 1991 as the counterpart to the MSD (Military Division), which were established in 1984.

“Obviously you feel very honoured that the Governor General recognizes you,” Nicholls told the Nation. “But it also helps shine a spotlight on the work that we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished, and the difference that we’ve made in building a justice system that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”

Nicholls is a member of the Cree Nation of Mistissini, where he worked in the executive office of the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, and served as the first Coordinator of Justice for the Cree Nation Government (CNG). He is currently the director of the CNG Department of Justice and Correctional Services (DOJCS).

“I think this recognition is a reflection of a lot of hard work to put in place a system that makes a difference, and that we’re going to continue to build upon,” he added.

While serving as director of the DOJCS, Nicholls has led the development of innovative crime prevention, alternative dispute resolution and reintegration programs for members of Eeyou Istchee. Their programs include school-based youth workshops, women’s shelters and a criminal record suspension framework to help people with barriers to employment find jobs.

“We’re providing a lot of services that didn’t exist before,” Nicholls said. “We work in the schools, we do a lot of programs with youth; we sponsor youth brigades, wellness walks, and an alternative suspension program. We work in the courts, with victims, and we offer support services that never existed before. We also do a lot of diversions from other justice committees, taking cases away from the courts for local dispute resolution. And ultimately, we’d love to have a Cree court.”

Nicholls speaks highly of the work put in by his staff and colleagues at the DOJCS and elsewhere, and of the considerable influence that Cree traditions and values have on his department’s policies.

“Justice comes from the community itself. So it’s based on the community’s values, and the way Cree society works. We’re the only ones with round courtrooms, and that’s symbolic because justice is about inclusiveness. It’s about the whole community being involved, and not having issues trapped in a corner.”

In addition to his academic and CNG work, Nicholls has also worked with Indigenous groups from every continent, and worked with international bodies to establish better guidelines in working with Indigenous populations. He was present at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and General Assembly in New York at the passing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Hopefully this recognition inspires other people to make transformative changes in the way that justice is handled within their own nations,” Nicholls emphasized. “We’ve developed a system that’s unique to us, but as a model it’s transposable. And we’re willing to share. Every time we’ve developed a program, when other First Nations tell us they’re starting a similar program, we tell them, ‘If you want us to help you, we’re more than happy to do that.’”

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