Chiefs offer solutions to high Indigenous incarceration rates at 'historic' meeting with judges
Local justice system chaperones, appropriate courtrooms, shorter wait times proposed to judges
Reducing time in remand and assigning local advocates who can guide offenders through the justice process were among the suggestions offered by 10 Manitoba First Nation chiefs at a meeting with judges this week in Norway House.
On Tuesday, chiefs presented ideas on addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous men and women in the criminal justice system. Eliminating this imbalance over the next decade is one of the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Pimicikamak Chief Cathy Merrick called Tuesday's meeting "historic" and said she hopes it is a first step to fixing a system that does not work for her people.
"We've never met with judges that are willing to listen," she said.
Prisons in Canada have been called the new residential schools. While Indigenous people make up only 4.9 per cent of the population in Canada, they comprise 26.4 per cent of inmates in Canadian prisons, according to office of the correctional investigator. The federal oversight body also found Indigenous prisoners tend to stay behind bars longer and are routinely classified as higher risk.
The white man laws do not work for my people. The white man systems do not work for my people.- Pimicikamak Chief Cathy Merrick
Merrick is calling for a new, separate justice system for Indigenous Peoples, one rooted in traditional practices that would focus on healing and restorative justice.
"The white man laws do not work for my people. The white man systems do not work for my people," she said.
Chief Clarence Easter of Chemawawin, a community approximately 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, said there are several logistical challenges that make justice harder to deliver in Indigenous northern communities. He called on judges to fix that.
"The courts only come to our communities when it's convenient for them," Easter said.
Court dates should happen every month, he said, but often weather and the sheer remoteness of some communities lead to delays. Individuals end up spending more time in remand or on bail, which can lead to further charges if they break probation rules.
"There's lots of breaches because of the remand," Easter said. "They're stuck in custody for a long time."
According to the correctional investigator, Indigenous adults are more likely to return to prison during parole because of administrative reasons rather than criminal violations.
Courthouses needed on First Nations
What's more, when court is held in remote communities, proceedings can take place in buildings that aren't suitable, Merrick said.
In Pimicikamak, those accused of crimes have to defend themselves in a nearby community hall, she said. Sometimes the smell of beer still lingers in the air from the previous weekend's social.
"You will never find a courthouse in any First Nation in this country," she said.
Both Easter and Merrick say defence lawyers rarely have enough time to acquaint themselves with a client before they have to present their case.
Easter said plea bargaining is common.
"Nobody takes time to look at the history of the person or what happened," he said. "Just what the RCMP has charged [the client] with."
Easter told the judges Tuesday communities should have their own Indigenous problem-solving clerks — like chaperones — who can guide people through the justice system.
The clerk could explain the legal system to the accused, help them understand what is happening, and explain their options prior to appearing before a judge.
Easter said alternative justice models are also a way to address overrepresentation. While they aren't available in every First Nation, they are in Chemawawin.
A justice committee in that community can decide on alternative forms of justice for minor crimes, helping an accused avoid the system altogether, he said.
"If an offender does something, you know, we try to focus on getting some restitution … pay for the window if they broke it or pay for the door. They do community work."
Merrick said alternative sentencing, which could evolve one day into an alternative Indigenous justice system, is the only way to bring equality to Indigenous Canadians accused of crimes.
"That's what we want. We're not asking for anything over and above what any other Manitoban or Canadian would get."
Judges told the Manitoba chiefs they want to continue Tuesday's discussion but did not provide a date.