Indigenous man testifies he was 'treated like an animal' in prison

John Clarence Kawapit described an incident in September 2017 when he was put in a room with no toilet and no sink — the "hole" — for six days because he was considered a suicide risk.

John Clarence Kawapit describes his experience in the Quebec justice system to Viens Commission

In testimony to the Viens Commission, John Clarence Kawapit described being put in a "hole" for six days while in prison because he was considered a suicide risk. (Submitted by Viens Commission)

John Clarence Kawapit says he's been treated "like an animal" by the Quebec judicial system, and things are getting worse for Indigenous inmates.

Kawapit, from the Cree community of Whapmagoostui, in northern Quebec, was one of four Indigenous inmates who testified Monday before the Viens Commission, a provincial inquiry into relations between Indigenous peoples and certain public services in Québec.

In 'the hole' for six days

Kawapit told the inquiry Indigenous inmates need more respect, particularly from inexperienced guards, as well as access to traditional food and medicines.

"There are many things I've seen," he said, adding he has spent more than half his life in prison. He described an incident in September 2017 when he was put in a room with no toilet and no sink — the "hole" — for six days because he was considered a suicide risk. He wasn't allowed to go outside and was only allowed one shower over that period. He said he has often been forced to sleep on the floor.

John Clarence Kawapit walked roughly 1,000 kilometres as part of a healing journey in 2016, eventually arriving in Ivujivik — Nunavik's most northern village. (Submitted by John Clarence Kawapit)

"Nobody deserves to be treated like an animal," said Kawapit. "They put me in that hole and they made fun of me. I felt like I was nothing at all."

He also told retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is presiding over the inquiry, about a healing journey he went on in the winter of 2016. Kawapit walked roughly 1,000 kilometres to 13 communities between Whapmagoostui and Ivujivik, Nunavik's most northern village. Kawapit said the walk was part of his efforts to heal from childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his father, which began at the age of five and has led to a lifetime of substance abuse and anger.

Kawapit said he is currently serving a 16-month sentence at a detention centre in Amos, Quebec, and would like to continue his healing there. But he said he has been denied access to his traditional medicines, such as an eagle feather and sweetgrass.

"[It's] my medicine. I need it," said Kawapit, adding during past prison stays he was allowed to smudge himself in his cell. He said when he was released from one prison stay in 2014, those sacred items were never returned to him.

Viens Commission comes out of Val d'Or allegations

The commission began its work in December 2016, focusing on how Indigenous communities across the province are treated by various public services, including the police, justice and correctional services, youth protection and the health-care system.

It was set up in the aftermath of allegations of mistreatment made by several Indigenous women against police officers in Val d'Or.

Kawapit said the conditions for First Nations inmates are worse now than in the past, according to what he has seen.

"I hardly [saw] anyone sleep on the floor 20 years ago," said Kawapit, who added he would like to see Indigenous inmates across Quebec have access to traditional food and activities, as well as visits from elders. He also said the younger guards lack an understanding of First Nations history and culture.

"Every time you go to jail, you build your anger there," said Kawapit. "It's not going to change unless you do something about it."