The Tsuu T'ina Peacemaker Court

The following is a summary on the Tsuu T'ina Peacemaker Court, designed and implemented by the Tsuu T'ina Dene Nation in Alberta. While this program is meant to serve the Tsuu T'ina Dene community, it is a valuable case study on implementing and recognizing Dene legal orders, and the principles which inform programs, decision-makers, and court-processes according to Dene law. The theme around 'sentencing circles' is evident in contemporary Dene Legal Traditions.   

Tsuu T’ina Peacemaker Court Summary

“The Tsuu T’ina are a Dene people occupying a reserve southwest of Calgary. An Aboriginal court complemented by a peacemaking program was proposed in 1996 and began sitting in 2000 (Mandamin 2003). The provincial court sits in a circular arrangement and the judge, prosecutor, court clerks, courtworker, probation officer and even some of the defense counsel are Aboriginal. Court protocols reflect Tsuu T’ina traditions including smudging and traditional symbols (beaded medallions and eagle feathers) on the robes of the judge and court clerks. Tsuu T’ina peacemakers sit across from the Crown prosecutors signifying equal status.

Any offender who wishes to utilize the peacemaking option may do so, and upon doing so, “the case is adjourned while the Peacemaking Coordinator assesses the case and decides whether to take it into peacemaking” (Mandamin 2003).

Peacemaking can occur only if the victim consents and participates. Only homicide and sexual assaults are excluded from peacemaking. Once a case is accepted for peacemaking the Peacemaker Coordinator gives the case to a trusted community peacemaker, previously identified by the community, and trained to take charge of the process. The community peacemaker brings all the parties affected by the crime to talk out their problems in a circle using Tsuu T’ina traditions with the assistance of an Elder (Mandamin 2003).

Elders play a major role because they “hold the knowledge of the past, including traditional justice practices” (Large 2001: 24 see also Mandamin 2003).

Each circle participant speaks without interruption as the circle is circumnavigated four times with each circuit having a different purpose. Upon completion of this circle process the offender signs an agreement to complete the disposition worked out in the circle. These may include restitution, counseling, participation in traditional ceremonies and community service among others (Mandamin 2003) Once the fourth circle has been completed the matter is returned to the court where the Crown prosecutor looks at the balance between the type of offence and the peacemaking decision (Mandamin 2003). If the peacemaking decision is appropriate the charge is withdrawn but when the issues are more serious the peacemaking report will only become part of the judge’s sentencing considerations. The influence of the formal justice system is felt through the limitation on the number of times that an offender can use peacemaking [....]

The Tsuu T’ina First Nation’s Peacemaker Court is, then, another hybrid form of justice incorporating both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal legal philosophy and practice. The provincial court and Peacemaker Court interpenetrate each other’s legal spaces. As the presiding Judge Tony Mandamin says of the Tsuu T’ina court

‘Peacemaking is their culture, past and present,’ and ‘It is a blending of their ways of keeping peace in the community and the Canadian criminal justice system’ (Ehman 2002).

This singular justice initiative, supported by the Alberta Department of Justice, melds Canadian law and Tsuu T’ina peacemaking values and as such is ‘a precedent-setting endeavour’ in the struggle to reduce Aboriginal overrepresentation (Large 2001: 22). The amalgamation of Tsuu T’ina and Western justice is then a form of interlegality that incorporates the distinctive and unfamiliar into the familiar and mixes codes and procedures for both the Tsuu T’ina and the formal justice system.”[1]


[1] Proulx, Craig. “Blending Justice: Interlegality and the Incorporation of Aboriginal Justice into the Formal Canadian Justice System.” The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 37 (2005): 96-98.

Common Values within Indigenous Restorative Justice


Dene guiding principles of equality, sharing, and reciprocity are demonstrated by the Honorable Leonard Mandamin, in his thesis, which studied the restorative justice programs developed by three different First Nations in Alberta; Tsuu T’ina Nation (Dene), Siksika Nation (Blackfoot), and Bigstone First Nation (Cree):

The Elders of the three First Nations, from different tribal groups (Blackfoot, Cree, and Dene), spoke of common values that underlay the Indigenous restorative justice. Those values are accountability for one’s personal conduct, helping or healing those who have transgressed, valuing relationships, and living in the proper way. [2]

“Early on during the emergence of Indigenous restorative justice, I asked Tom Crane, a Siksika Elder, if he knew of such practices in the past. He thought for a moment and told me of an incident that happened in his youth. He and some other young people had done something that led to their being summoned to appear before the Council. They were required to take steps to make up for what they had done after which they had to again appear before the Council to report. This requirement for accountability was echoed by Bigstone Elders who explained that in years gone by a youth who had done something wrong would be taken by a parent or grandparent to the person harmed to apologize and make up for the harm. The Tsuu T’ina saw their peacemaking process beginning with the offender acknowledging what he or she did. Without that acknowledgement, they would not proceed with peacemaking. The underlying principle was accountability; a person must be accountable for his or her actions.[3]

“I had often thought about how it was that the Tsuu T’ina peacemaking process was singularly effective in leading to change in offenders. Peacemaking was done in a circle process with the wrong doer making an agreement with the circle about what he or she had to do to atone and to heal. Russel White, a Siksika Elder touched on this process of making agreements during self government deliberations among the Siksika. We were talking about making laws and the Elder explained that the Siksika laws were agreements. If everyone agreed on something, that became their law. This explains the reverence the Siksika have for the Treaty. It also explains why the Tsuu T’ina peacemaking agreements are so effective. It is driven by the agreement reached in the peacemaking circle. The agreement process resonates for Indigenous people more so than do statute imposed mandatory laws and court orders. Underlying this Indigenous perspective is the importance of relationships amongst Indigenous peoples. These three values - individual accountability, helping a person restore their lives in a good way and maintaining good relationships with others - underlie Indigenous restorative justice initiatives.”[4]


[2] Leonard Mandamin, “Naadamaagewin: Indigenous Restorative Justice,” MA Thesis (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2021), 60-61.

[3] Leonard Mandamin, “Naadamaagewin: Indigenous Restorative Justice,” MA Thesis (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2021), 61.

[4] Leonard Mandamin, “Naadamaagewin: Indigenous Restorative Justice,” MA Thesis (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2021), 62.