Treatment of Inuit by Quebec justice system called 'unacceptable' by ombudsman

Quebec's ombudsman has released a scathing report into the treatment of Inuit in the provincial justice system, saying detention conditions are "below current standards" and infringe on the right to human dignity.

Report notes dramatic rise in number of Inuit in provincial jails, from 549 to 898 over last 6 years

Quebec ombudsman Raymonde Saint-Germain has made 30 recommendations to improve the treatment of Inuit in the provincial justice system. (iStock)

Quebec's ombudsman has released a scathing report on the treatment of Inuit in the provincial justice system. 

Raymonde Saint-Germain describes the conditions of people arrested and convicted as "unacceptable."  

She says the detention conditions are "below current standards" and infringe on the constitutional right to human dignity.

The ombudsman's office visited three villages in Nunavik, the Inuit territory of about 11,000 people in northern Quebec, as part of the investigation. In Nunavik, office officials witnessed serious violations of detainees' rights.

Among Saint-Germain's concerns:

  • Holding cells are often unsanitary and overcrowded.
  • Inmates with "incompatible profiles" are thrown together, creating a dangerous situation inside the holding cells.
  • People arrested in Nunavik are detained 24 hours a day, which doesn't happen anywhere else in the province.
  • The wait for a bail hearing can be as long as 10 days. 
  • The lack of videoconferencing technology and jails in northern Quebec means millions of dollars are spent transferring the accused to Amos for pre-trial detention. Amos is 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, but prisoners are often routed through Montreal and St-Jérôme.
  • Detention so far from home means family members aren't able to visit those detained.

Ombusman calls for improvements

Raymonde Saint-Germain says the detention conditions of Inuit in Quebec infringe on the right to human dignity. (Radio-Canada)

Saint-Germain made 30 recommendations to the province, including: 

  • Lower the occupancy rate in detention cells in Nunavik.
  • Ensure detention areas and bedding are always clean.
  • Allow detainees to spend time outdoors by providing them with secure space for that purpose.
  • Change the angle of cameras so that toilets cannot be viewed on screen.
  • Ensure that suicide intervention equipment is available and that officers can use it correctly.
  • Overcome the language barrier.

Her report also notes a dramatic rise in the number of Inuit in provincial jails. That number has increased to 898 from 549 in the past six years. 

Saint-Germain said improved social services, including treatment for substance abuse, would help address the problem.

"Over-reliance on the courts and the resulting incarceration does nothing to solve social problems," she said. 

"More has to be done for social progress in Nunavik."

Conditions 'unacceptable'

Nunavik community leaders welcomed the report, saying it "comes at the right time, as action is urgently needed," according to Jobie Tukkiapik, president of the Makivik Corporation, which is the governing body of Quebec's Inuit.

"The situation of overcrowding in detention cells and the conditions it creates are totally unacceptable and needs to be corrected right away. The justice system needs to better adapt to our reality," Tukkiapik said in a written statement released Thursday afternoon.

"We need more culturally adapted programs for the Nunavik Inuit detainees if we want them to be better equipped when they reintegrate our communities … We need to see more progress."

Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said he is very preoccupied by the contents of the report and said the situation will be examined closely.

"It is a very serious problem that will be taken very seriously," Coiteux said. "What I am saying is one part of the solution is on the shoulder of the government and we are going to take our responsibility, but we have to work with the community to work at the basic causes of this problem."

Coiteux said it will also be important for the government to focus on prevention.

"What are the social problems that are the root cause of this situation? We have to work in prevention. We have to work to improve the basic situation that leads to this type of social problem."