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Prison rates of Indigenous peoples at 100 %: Offenders need to know their rights


I was astounded to learn that the latest incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples in the North is at nearly 100 per cent capacity.

This is a staggering number but not surprising when the docket in the courthouse on an early morning hearing shows the last names on the rolling screen, most of them well known family names.

Indigenous people in the north make up more than half of the population. Our communities are small. Northerners know whose who and what family line a person comes from. Sadly, those standing in front of the judge charged with petty crimes are often so caught up in the system with breaches and failures to appear that they end up going to jail for nothing other than the crime of being a marginalized person forced to live in a discriminatory society. The unfair system that we call justice is actually doing more damage than good. Yet the NWT government still has not taken these disproportionate statistics seriously enough to do something about it. I recently wrote an email to the Justice Minister asking if there were any Gladue writers employed in the justice department in order to help mitigate this problem. I was disappointed when she confirmed that there were not.

There is one thing that really irks me about the GNWT. It’s that decision makers tend to think that they are doing everything they can by doing things their way and only their way. The GNWT often doesn’t go along with the rest of the country. The reason for this, we are told, is that it’s because we are remote, our population is low in comparison to other provinces, it’s hard to find skilled workers. Excuse after excuse.

But there is no excuse for not making the small effort to implement an affordable program that can reduce the over incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples in the justice system.

Gladue writers are proven to be an effective source of lowering incarceration rates across the country. For those that don’t know what a Gladue writer is, here’s a brief explanation. Back in the mid 90’s Jamie Gladue, a young Indigenous woman stabbed her partner in the chest and he died. She was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to three years imprisonment. The reason why this case received national attention was because the judge who sentenced her did not consider section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code and made the terrible decision that it did not apply to her because she lived off-reserve.

Section 718.2(e) of the Canadian Criminal Code makes it so that the courts shall take into consideration all available sanctions, other than imprisonment … with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders. If Jamie Gladue were to be sentenced with 718.2(e) taken into consideration, her criminal actions would have been factored against her life history which the court later learned was in fact tragic and culturally oppressed. Like Jamie Gladue, many Indigenous peoples are suffering from addictions, impoverishment and victimization because they face difficult circumstances that have adverse effects on their lives. These circumstances are directly attached to colonialism including the residential school legacy. This myriad of hardship contributes to committed criminal acts that are not of one’s own desire but of external matters that are often out of one’s control to act within the law.

I’m not saying that what Jamie Gladue did was acceptable (or even forgivable for that matter), but I do believe that due to her history, she should have been given the opportunity to be heard. That is what the Gladue program does: it provides a way for Indigenous offenders to unravel the burdens that are often not theirs to bear. It gives a chance from offenders to put down the heavy weight that they have been carrying around their entire lives. It offers a path for Indigenous offenders to walk down through reintegration and healing if they so choose, yes Gladue sentencing reports are voluntary.

The Yukon government has successfully implemented their Gladue program and it is doing what it is supposed to be doing: reintegrating and lowering institutionalization rates effectively. It is proving to be highly successful in decreasing the numbers of Indigenous people from reoffending. If the NWT is struggling to find Gladue writer training, we know we can turn to our neighbors in the north for assistance without question.

So far, NWT Courts are still not implementing this as a mandatory obligation. It is beyond shameful that the government of the NWT hasn’t done more to try and mitigate the over incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples.

I don’t want to hear the lame rationale that judges, lawyers and probation officers who are working in the North are already well versed in the history of colonization just because they live and work in the north and therefore perceive themselves to be culturally aware of Indigenous matters presented to them in court and for that reason there is no need to invite Gladue writers in on the game. I don’t want to hear that diversion methods with the GNWT in the city of Yellowknife are working because they aren’t, nor are they inclusive or diverse.

Last time I checked there was a panel of all non-Indigenous people that sat on the diversion committee with the John Howard Society. Committee members can easily dismiss a case on account of a roll of the eyes.

Community justice committees on the other hand are doing the best they can with the small amount of funding they receive from the GNWT, however more work needs to be done on behalf of the courts to ensure that offenders know their rights. They need to be advised that they have the right to request to be sentenced in the community depending on the severity of the crime committed. Exercising those rights and having a court worker walk someone through the motions of those rights is what is missing in NWT Courts.

I’ve seen firsthand how sensitive details of an offender's personal life get set aside when a legal aid lawyer stands in front of the judge and dismisses those crucial pieces of information that might just make the difference between healing and recovery or institutionalization.

Those details don’t seem to matter when it comes to the law but they do matter and the judge who has had a privileged upbringing can ever fully understand what it is like to live in poverty and suffer from the effects of poverty. No amount of similar cases that have gone through a courtroom can provide a judge with the insight into what it is like to be on the other side of the bench because they simply haven’t lived it.

Even just one Gladue writer is enough to make a difference. I’m sure cuts in other divisions of the government can be made, especially in those job sectors where zero productivity is happening. Jobs that are staged to make it look like they are serving the Indigenous population. In case you haven’t noticed, yes there are government workers going to work and twiddling their thumbs doing nothing but collecting a hefty pay cheque without guilt.

If we want to see less homeless people living on the streets, less break and enters, less alcohol related violent crimes resulting in death then we should be doing more to prevent offenders from choosing a life of crime to survive. To prevent a young person from building up a long record of re-offenses, petty crimes and carrying that over from young offender to adult. The justice system is only adding to the problem by not working to find a solution that is right in front of them, starting with the Gladue case.

Slamming the gavel down hard on the bench is not going to solve anything. It’s only going to stop someone from committing a crime for a few months while they serve a light sentence.

Rehabilitation and reintegration are key to healthy communities.