A new elders council that will offer advice to Ontario's attorney general should help make the justice system more responsive to the Aboriginal population, the provincial government said Tuesday.
The announcement came on a day the federal auditor general in his annual report criticized correctional authorities for failing Aboriginal inmates.
In announcing the council, Ontario's Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer acknowledged the long-standing concern about the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system.
"We are working closely with Indigenous people on new approaches that are culturally appropriate and respect traditional practices," Zimmer said in a statement. "The work of the elders council is critical to those efforts as part of the journey of reconciliation."
A key issue for the new council, which includes 13 elders from across the province, is the application of the so-called Gladue principles in sentencing Aboriginal offenders. Arising out of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999, courts are supposed to consider the special circumstances native Canadians find themselves in and try to avoid incarcerating them where possible.
In Ottawa Tuesday, Auditor General Michael Ferguson found Correctional Service Canada was failing to provide timely rehabilitation programs for Indigenous offenders and that relatively few of them were released on parole — a situation he called "beyond unacceptable."
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Ferguson faulted the prison system for failing to take into account Aboriginal social history factors, including the lingering trauma inflicted by the Indian residential school system, poverty and substance abuse.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale responded that the federal Liberal government wanted to improve the situation.
"Our government is seized with the issue of over-representation of Indigenous persons in the correctional system," Goodale said.
Summit on Gladue report
The Ontario government has been hosting a three-day Gladue summit in Thunder Bay, Ont., as it seeks to help address the fact that Aboriginals make up about four per cent of the Canadian population but about 25 per cent of the country's prison population.
The summit is part of its response to recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the federal judicial inquiry into the residential school system. In it final report last year, the commission concluded that the residential school experience lay at the "root of the over-incarceration" of Aboriginal people.
"Traumatized by their school experiences, many succumbed to addictions and found themselves among the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people who come into conflict with the law," the commission wrote.
In response, the Ontario government acknowledged the link between the notorious residential school system and the numbers of Aboriginals involved in the justice system.
"Indigenous offenders feel a deep alienation behind the bars of correctional institutions just as they (or their parents or grandparents) felt inside the walls of residential schools," the province said in May.
As a result, it promised to improvements that included increasing the availability of community-led restorative justice programs.
Building a justice system that is both culturally relevant and responsive to the needs of Indigenous people requires tapping the "wisdom and experience" of Aboriginals, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said in a statement Tuesday.
The province has already promised to spend another $13.3 million over three years to expand a federal-provincial program that funds Gladue report writers who serve 18 areas of the province.