Indigenous prisoners face discrimination, violence, say frontline workers

''I've seen inmates get beaten black and blue and be thrown in segregation for upwards of two months and not have a hearing," says an Innu activist who works with Indigenous prisoners.

'I've seen inmates get beaten black and blue,' says First Nations activist

Armand Mackenzie says Canada has failed to make good on promises to recognize the judicial rights of First Nations people, a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which dates back to the 1990s. (Submitted by Armand Mackenzie)

Armand MacKenzie spent 15 years representing Indigenous offenders before he quit the practice. 

MacKenzie, an Innu lawyer, said when an offender showed up for a court appearance at the Sept-Îles courthouse on Quebec's North Shore, he'd face a room filled with white people: the judge, the constable, the prosecutor and the support staff.

''I felt like a player in the business, like another person contributing to the misery people were going through,'' MacKenzie told CBC's Quebec AM.

''Sometimes French was my client's third language, and even getting a trial in English was difficult."

Behind the walls

Once an Indigenous person is convicted and goes from being a suspect to an inmate, that person can face a whole new set of challenges, said Albert Dumont.

Dumont, who worked for three years in one of Ontario's toughest prisons, said Indigenous prisoners are treated differently, including when it comes to punishment.

Albert Dumont has worked as a spiritual healer and advisor with Indigenous inmates in Ontario and Quebec. (Jason Pickering)

''I've seen inmates get beaten black and blue and be thrown in segregation for upwards of two months and not have a hearing. They'd only be let out when I'd get involved,'' said Dumont, who worked in the maximum security ''J-Unit'' at Millhaven Institute in Bath, Ont.

''The sins of the system are far greater than what the offender ever committed, in a lot of cases,'' Dumont told Quebec AM.

In his autumn 2016 report, Canada's Auditor General Michael Ferguson highlighted that Indigenous people make up just three per cent of the country's adult population, but they account for 26 per cent of the inmates in federal institutions.

Dumont said he's not surprised. He said the inmates he worked with grew up surrounded by violence.

''They're in emotional turmoil. They didn't have any role models. They saw things as a child that no person should have to witness,'' Dumont said. 

The 66-year-old was recently appointed by the Attorney General of Ontario to serve on an elders council that will offer advice to find ways to adapt the justice system to the reality of Indigenous people. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to review changes to the criminal justice system over the last decade, with one of the goals being to reduce the rate of incarceration of Indigenous Canadians. 

Millhaven's former segregation unit — built more than 40 years ago — was severely criticized by the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada. (Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada)

Another way forward

Dumont said very few offenders get access to a Gladue report, despite it being required by Canada's Criminal Code.

Under the Gladue principle, the history and background of Indigenous offenders have to be taken into account by the judge during sentencing, to prioritize sanctions other than incarceration.

''A lot of people see the Gladue system as a get-out-of-jail card, they are so wrong in assuming that,'' said Dumont.

Instead, Dumont said opting for restorative justice programs whenever possible would address several issues at once, including a real chance for rehabilitation.

''If someone is in emotional turmoil, they're not receiving any other message, they're not receiving the message of spirituality, of rehabilitation. You have to get through to them emotionally.''

Mackenzie also fully supports the Gladue principle. 

He said he tried to change the system in several ways, for example, by lobbying for a separate detention centre for Indigenous people in Sept-Îles.

But he believes little has changed over the past decades, despite a series of reports and recommendations.

​''Recognizing the judicial rights of First Nations was one of the recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, made back in 1991," said MacKenzie.

The Kapatakan Gilles-Jourdain centre in Mani-Utenam, Que., offers housing and rehabilitation to Indigenous offenders in accordance with Innu culture and traditions. (Facebook/Kapatakan Gilles-Jourdain)

with files from CBC's Quebec AM