Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ontario must rebuild First Nations’ trust in legal system: Editorial

Ontario must rebuild First Nations’ trust in legal system: Editorial
Editorial, Toronto Star, February 27, 2013

Reggie Bushie went missing more than five years ago. The 15-year-old’s body was found in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River on Nov. 1, 2007. To this day his family in the remote Poplar Hill First Nation still doesn’t know the full story of his death. An inquest that was originally to look into it was derailed because of a lack of First Nations people in the jury pool.

Sadly, this case isn’t unique. In a searing report entitled First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci points to a “serious and persistent” problem. Ontario’s 300,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit are chronically overrepresented in jails and under-represented on the juries that assess innocence and guilt, or probe deaths. In the Kenora judicial district, for example, more than 30 per cent of residents live on reserves, but make up less than 10 per cent of the jury roll. In Thunder Bay, it’s 5 per cent of residents and just over 1 per cent of the roll. And it’s symptomatic of bigger problems.

“First Nations people are significantly under-represented, not just on juries, but among all those who work in the administration of justice in this province, whether as court officials, prosecutors, defence counsel, or judges,” Iacobucci observes in his report.

The reasons are not hard to find. Many feel alienated. They fail to see their cultural values, laws, or traditional approaches to conflict resolution and restorative justice reflected in the system. Many see it as a foreign imposition that too often works against them.

As a consequence “the justice system generally as applied to First Nations peoples, particularly in the North, is quite frankly in a crisis,” Iacobucci warns. It “has often ignored or discriminated against” native peoples, he reports.

This ought to be a wake-up call to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government. These findings should be required reading for judges, Crown prosecutors, police and others. What’s needed to rebuild trust in the law, Iacobucci argues, is a far greater degree of cultural acceptance and partnership than now exists. Rather than cavil about the word “crisis,” Attorney-General John Gerretsen should take this advice to heart.

Iacobucci’s 17 transformative recommendations include urging Gerretsen to appoint a senior deputy for aboriginal justice issues, and to create a panel to advise on such issues. He also calls for a panel with “substantial First Nations membership” to implement his report. Wisely, Gerretsen has quickly agreed to some of this. Beyond that, Iacobucci calls for in-depth studies on legal representation, First Nations policing, aboriginal court workers and other issues. And he sees a need for cultural training for police, court workers and prison guards.

To address the jury issue Iacobucci recommends that Ontario launch a drive to better educate First Nations on the justice system, in their own languages. He calls for changes to the questionnaire sent to prospective jurors to make it more user-friendly and less coercive sounding. He recommends using Ontario’s health card database to help fill in chronic gaps in the jury roll. And he urges that people be allowed to volunteer for jury duty, that jurors not be excluded because of minor offences, and that they be better compensated. All this would help build trust in the system.

This report should inspire policy-makers not only in Ontario but across the country. It is driven by a deep conviction that the system must no longer fail people such as Reggie Bushie and his grieving family. They should feel shielded by the law and upheld, not threatened and marginalized.

Watchdog blasts surge in Aboriginal prisoners

Watchdog blasts surge in Aboriginal prisoners
by Bruce Campion-Smith, Toronto Star, March 8, 2013

OTTAWA— Canadian prisons are filling with aboriginal people, warns a scathing new report that urges immediate action to defuse a growing social crisis.

The correctional investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, said in a report released Thursday that the aboriginal population in prison has jumped 43 per cent in the last five years.

Today, aboriginal people make up 4 per cent of the Canadian population, yet comprise 23 per cent of the prisoners — more than 3,400 in all — in federal corrections institutions. And he found that aboriginal offenders are more likely to serve more of their sentence behind bars, be held in segregation or with maximum security populations and be disproportionately prone to self-injury while in prison.

“If I was releasing a report card on federal aboriginal corrections efforts today, it would be filled with failing grades,” Sapers told a news conference.

Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, of the Assembly of First Nations, said “concrete” action is needed now on a problem that has been unfolding for many years. He said the danger is that a generation of aboriginal Canadians will be lost in Canada’s prison systems.

“I think everyone should be concerned,” Alexis said.

“A lot of our young people, sadly they learn things in corrections and penal systems and they come home with some of these things that are not conducive to the First Nations communities,” he said.

Liberal and NDP MPs pointed the finger at the Conservative government, saying the trend has gotten worse since the Tories took office in 2006.

“What we find in this report is a shocking indictment of how this government has failed aboriginal Canadians,” said NDP MP Randall Garrison, adding that poor social and economics conditions are fuelling a crisis in First Nations’ communities.

But the findings got a cool response from the government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it’s the courts that are responsible for putting people behind bars.

“Prisoners are individuals who are found guilty of crimes by independent courts,” Harper told the Commons.

It was apparent on Thursday that the government wanted to frame the issue as a justice concern rather than one about the inmates. That was clear as Justice Minister Rob Nicholson addressed opposition questions on the topic rather than Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who has responsibility for the Correctional Service of Canada.

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia said the Tories were treating the issue like a “hot potato” passing from one minister to another.

“That’s not a very responsible approach . . . the major increase in incarcerated aboriginals has been under this government,” Scarpaleggia said, adding the onus is on the Tories to respond in a “meaningful way.”

Still, the report marks a challenge for Harper’s government, which earlier in the year had been confronted with protests in the streets for its failure to act on First Nations priorities.

“By any reasonable measure . . . the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in federal corrections and the lack of progress to improve the disparity in correctional outcomes continue to cloud Canada’s domestic human rights record,” Sapers said.

The findings mirror a Star analysis of Ontario jail data, which revealed that black and aboriginal people are overrepresented in youth and adult jails.

In Ontario, aboriginal boys aged12 to 17 make up 2.9 per cent of the young male population. But in the province’s youth facilities they make up nearly15 per cent of young male admissions.

Sapers took the rare step of issuing a special report to draw attention to problems at the federal level and warned a “critical situation will get worse” unless the Conservative government takes action now.

Sapers said the rehabilitation and reintegration of aboriginal inmates must become a “significant priority” for the Correctional Service of Canada.

“Despite years of efforts, things are not getting better,” he said.