A woman was kept in a Yellowknife RCMP holding cell for 11 days over the Christmas holiday – a situation the NWT’s justice minister said must be avoided in future.
As first reported by CKLB, the woman spent 10 nights and 11 days in an RCMP cell. Police, who declined an interview, acknowledged in a statement this was not an “ideal situation.”
In 2016, a territorial court judge found another woman held in similar circumstances had suffered discrimination, on account of her gender, that “violated her dignity as a human being.”
Asked about the incident in the legislature on Wednesday, justice minister Caroline Wawzonek said there are “no doubt ways to avoid that in the future.”
Wawzonek said: “We all need to be doing our part to make sure we are aware when something like this is happening – and looking for ways to support someone, and the justice system, so an individual doesn’t wind up in this situation.”
The woman, who is not being identified, could not be reached for comment by Cabin Radio.
She was arrested for failure to comply, meaning a suspicion she had broken promises made to the court following a previous charge for another offence.
The NWT’s Corrections Act allows police cells to stand in as a makeshift corrections facility if necessary. In this case, authorities say they could not arrange transport to the women’s corrections facility in Fort Smith and no appropriate space could be found at the jail in Yellowknife.
In a statement, Yellowknife detachment commander Insp Alex Laporte said there were no suitable flights to and from Fort Smith that would have allowed the woman to make her four required Yellowknife court appearances in 11 days.
Complicating the matter, Laporte added, was the challenge of “statutory holidays and the GNWT mandatory holiday break.”
Wawzonek, the minister, told Cabin Radio justice department staff who would normally help transfer people to Fort Smith were likely on holiday at the time.
“Those would be the kinds of staff who I’d expect wouldn’t be around necessarily over Christmas,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean somebody else doesn’t step in and do it.”
Lights on, no windows
Wawzonek acknowledged RCMP cells were neither designed nor intended to be a correctional facility.
“The lights are on all the time. You are on a cold slab. There’s not access to a window, there’s not access to outside time,” said the minister, who is an experienced NWT lawyer.
“You can legally have someone there temporarily – we have to be able to do that to manage the transportation of individuals who are under correctional authority or under RCMP authority – but it is simply not a place to hold someone long-term.”
Any more than 24 to 48 hours in a cell would be uncomfortable, Wawzonek said.
“That’s not anyone’s desire or intention. Nobody wanted this to happen.”
A 2016 decision by territorial court judge Robert Gorin, in which another woman spent 12 days in RCMP cells, described the presence of constant video surveillance – including “when she used the toilet located in the cell’s corner.”
Gorin said the “very difficult conditions” that woman endured bore “marked similarities to those which serving prisoners experience while in … what has previously been referred to as solitary confinement.”
Minister of Justice Caroline Wawzonek. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Laporte said his officers try to make extended stays in holding cells as comfortable as possible, including the coordination of visits, if requested, and medical appointments.
“RCMP cared for her wellbeing and her safety,” Laporte said in a statement having declined an interview, adding the woman in the latest incident received “out-of-cell time, blankets, mattress, customized meals, and reading material.”
Does the NWT’s system discriminate?
In his 2016 decision, Gorin said women spending “unacceptably long periods” in police cells had been “a regular and sometimes frequent” occurrence in the NWT since his appointment as a judge in 2005.
In that 2016 case, Gorin ultimately decided the woman had experienced “excessively harsh” treatment that amounted to gender discrimination and a violation of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The woman’s sentence was reduced by two months as a result. (The NWT’s Court of Appeal later said Gorin had overstepped in deciding the 12-day stay in an RCMP cell amounted to a charter violation.)
In his decision, Gorin described a system for incarcerated women where the vast majority of bail hearings happen in Yellowknife but the city has no correctional facility for women awaiting a hearing.
If women wanted to appear in court in person – not via video link from the territory’s only correctional facility with space for women, in Fort Smith – they had to be housed in RCMP cells.
“It is clear that, had she been a man, she would have been housed at the North Slave Correctional Centre,” he wrote.
‘Fairly unusual’ circumstances
Some changes have happened since 2016.
The North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC) now has a dedicated space for women, while a dedicated women’s corrections facility opened last year in Fort Smith.
Better video-link capacity now exists, Wawzonek said, linking Yellowknife courtrooms to Fort Smith “so that people aren’t being transported back and forth.”
Jessi Casebeer, a Yellowknife lawyer who is not handling the woman’s case, told Cabin Radio by email: “Holding individuals at RCMP detachments is an issue in the NWT due to the remoteness of many communities.
“If you are arrested in Yellowknife, you generally are taken to NSCC … after you appear in front of the [justice of the peace] within 24 hours. However, this is subject to the availability of space and the intake practices of NSCC.”
NSCC has four bedrooms for female inmates. Minister Wawzonek said this section of NSCC reaching capacity, as it apparently did over Christmas, is “fairly unusual” – but it does happen. In the current fiscal year, the four bedrooms have been full for a total of 69 days.
The minister said she could not address whether the woman’s 11-day stay amounted to a charter violation, as the matter is before the courts.
In general, Wawzonek said, she does not believe there is discrimination against women in the NWT justice system, and does not believe Yellowknife need pursue a separate women’s facility.
She says her department should study what happened in this case – including the woman’s four court dates and her access to legal counsel– to see how her case could have been better managed, and how the remand process more broadly is handled.
“In general, there are always spaces for women at Fort Smith. It’s a brand-new facility and an excellent facility,” she said.
“We want to make sure we’re utilizing all of our resources before assuming we necessarily need more of one type of resource.”