Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's latest tough-on-crime measures are getting a harsh review from aboriginal justice workers, who say they fear his move to end conditional sentencing for more than 30 crimes will lead to more aboriginal Canadians in jails.
Jonathan Rudin, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto, said the Conservatives' proposed measures do not take into account what the government's own statistics indicate is a fundamental imbalance in sentencing for aboriginal Canadians in the criminal justice system.
About three per cent of Canada's population is aboriginal, but they make up about 20 per cent of the prison population, according to Statistics Canada.
"It's not that aboriginal people are more prone to criminality, it's that when aboriginal people commit crime, they go to jail," Rudin told CBC News. "Whereas when non-aboriginal people commit crime, they don't necessarily go to jail."
When asked on Tuesday how his plan to cut down on conditional sentencing would affect aboriginal people, Harper acknowledged that they were more likely to be convicted of a crime.
But he added aboriginal people are also disproportionately more likely to be themselves victims of crimes, and said the measures would give those people the justice they deserve.
"In the end, justice has to be colour blind," Harper said during a campaign stop in Saskatoon. "If an offender is, you know, is aboriginal or Chinese or Caucasian, that really should not matter. What matters is that they're tried before the system and if they're guilty, they face the appropriate punishment."
'Justice is not colour blind'
The comment drew heated reaction from Joanne Kakewash, a community justice worker for Onashowewin, an aboriginal restorative justice program in Winnipeg.
She said the Conservative leader's viewpoint does not take into account what really goes on in Canada's courts.
"If you could hear the stories from at least 75 per cent of our clients, justice is not colour blind," Kakewash told CBC News. "And that's why our programs need to be here and be implemented."
Rudin said conditional sentencing and other options other than incarceration are more successful in the long run in helping offenders change their lives, which ultimately makes Canada safer.
But he said he fears the Conservatives are also taking aim at options such as sentencing circles and restorative justice programs, which became part of the Canadian justice system in 1995, with amendments to the Criminal Code.
The programs were designed to address the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the correctional system and find alternatives to jail or prison.
Rudin described Harper's proposal this week to limit conditional sentences as a "stealth attack" on the overlying social policy behind the Criminal Code amendments. He said the measures would ultimately limit the options judges would have at their disposal during sentencing other than jail.
The Liberal party has said Harper's proposal would mean about 7,000 more people would be locked up.
The Conservatives wouldn't say whether restorative justice programs are at risk under the party's anti-crime platform, the CBC's Karen Pauls reported. But the Tories did say the philosophy of conditional sentencing is failing Canadians.