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Indigenous jail numbers are ‘a national travesty.’ What can the NWT do?


Numbers of Indigenous people behind bars in the NWT are “outrageous,” a Yellowknife defence lawyer said, calling for a “full-on attack” in all parts of society to fix the problem.

Recent NWT Department of Justice data showed all women – and 83 percent of men – incarcerated in the territory are Indigenous. Only roughly half of the territory’s population identifies as Indigenous.

There is a similar trend across Canada. The nation’s correctional investigator, who acts as an ombudsperson for federal prisoners, recently declared over-representation of Indigenous people in the prison system to be “nothing short of a national travesty.”

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The territory’s justice minister, Caroline Wawzonek, says the problem is too big for her department alone to fix. Speaking to Cabin Radio, she called for long-term, system-wide changes involving housing, health, and education.

Wawzonek said shorter-term changes within the justice system could include finding more opportunities to release people on bail or community initiatives to keep people out of the system in the first place.

In the legislature, MLAs called on the territory to learn from and expand projects that help vulnerable people navigate various departments’ systems.

“It’s outrageous,” said Jay Bran, a Dene lawyer and member of the Fort Simpson band, who has worked in the territory’s legal system for more than a decade.

“Being an Aboriginal defence lawyer, being right there on the front line, it’s difficult to see – day in and day out – so many Aboriginal people here in the North in the system.”

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Indigenous people, around five percent of Canada’s population, now make up almost a third of the country’s inmate population.

Ivan Zinger, the correctional investigator, found numbers of non-Indigenous inmates declined by 13.7 percent in the past decade – but Indigenous inmate numbers increased by 43.4 percent.

Indigenous women make up 42 percent of Canada’s inmates.

Zinger suggested these “disturbing and entrenching imbalances” in the prison population indicate an “Indigenization” of the correctional system in Canada.

“No government of any stripe has managed to reverse the trend of Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons,” he stated.

Other reports have dubbed prisons the “new residential schools” of Canada.

Reverse the burden?

“It’s the one thing about the justice system that never changes,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Every effort to improve it has failed.”

Bryant proposed changing the criminal code to rule out Indigenous incarceration by default, forcing the Crown to explain to the court why incarceration may be needed in each case. “So you reverse the burden and you legislate the results you want,” he said.

Cases like homicide would clearly still result in incarceration, said Bryant, but the vast majority of Indigenous people are in jail for administration of justice crimes – or what Bryant termed “trivial offences”. These include failing to comply with the conditions of a person’s release, not appearing in court, or disobeying a court order.

While non-Indigenous people also commit these crimes, Indigenous people are more often jailed for them, Bryant said. That’s “racism and misogyny,” he said. “I guess we can call it systemic in order not to offend anybody, but it’s racism.”

‘So many fronts need to be attacked’

“The problem starts in the education system,” said Bran. “The problems start in the communities, with employment opportunities. We’re still dealing with all of the problems that are associated with residential schools and loss of culture, loss of language, disconnection with the land.

“The justice system is not going to solve those problems. There’s just so many fronts that need to be attacked all at the same time.”

Bran said people who come into contact with police, and the justice system, often lack housing, live on the fringes of society, have addictions, or are grappling with mental health issues – all circumstances more likely to affect Indigenous people.

Changing legislation or reforming sentencing laws are “band-aid solutions to problems that are so much deeper,” Bran said.

“We’re not going to make any changes by putting an Atco trailer in the yard of the jail so that women have a place to stay.

“We need a full-on attack on everything: housing, education, counseling, mental health.”

Wawzonek, the justice minister, agreed it was “not realistic” to expect the corrections system alone to fix the underlying problems.

“Health needs to be involved, housing needs to be involved, education needs to be involved, safe and healthy families needs to be involved,” she said.

However, the minister said changes could take place within the justice system. For example, she said, there could be “better options for people to have judicial interim release” – in other words, more options to allow people out on bail.

“That’s the conversation we have started to have in the justice system,” said Wawzonek, who worked as a Yellowknife-based lawyer before entering politics.

“There are studies that suggest once you are incarcerated and don’t get bail, you’re actually more likely to get a longer jail sentence afterward.”

Are these front-line changes the solution?

The NWT’s integrated case management system, produced by a working group involving different territorial departments, demonstrates how silos can be broken down to help individuals, Wawzonek said.

Integrated case management works to get vulnerable people the help they need using case managers to navigate the various systems of justice, health, education, and housing. The program is said by Yellowknife police to have markedly reduced the number of incidents in the city.

In the legislature on Thursday, two regular MLAs called on ministers to use integrated case management as a template for much greater collaboration between departments – and a change in the way people are treated.

“I don’t believe that these solutions are that complex. They require front-line workers making a ‘yes’ the default answer,” said Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson.

“They require our front-line workers having flexibility to interpret policies that, when a person with complex needs is in front of them, they can allow the policy to work for that person. They require our departments to talk to each other and create case files for individuals with complex needs. They require our departments to email each other on the front lines.”

Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, said: “Integrated teams can be more flexible, more creative, and more effective. Most importantly, they learn from both their successes and their failures, but they need room to fail fast and move forward faster.

“Our social and environmental problems are unique. Cookie-cutter solutions won’t work. Much of what we need to do has little precedent.”

Wawzonek said her government was prepared to do more.

“The entire assembly is keen to focus on relationships,” she said. “Building relationships and partnerships within government and between governments, between different governments, and between communities.”

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