'We all have a part to play': N.W.T. justice minister addresses Indigenous incarceration 'crisis'

In the wake of a new report showing Indigenous people make up almost a third of Canada’s prison population, N.W.T. Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek suggested changes to the territory’s justice system could be in order.

Canada’s correctional investigator called national Indigenous incarceration rates ‘a national travesty’

N.W.T. Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the percentage of Indigenous people in the N.W.T.'s jails is decreasing, but is still 'tremendously high.' (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

In the wake of a new report showing Indigenous people account for almost a  third of prisoners in Canada, the N.W.T.'s justice minister said changes are in order for the territory's justice system.

Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s justice minister, suggested adjustments to the territory's bail system and a study of meaningful alternatives to prison, especially for those facing very short sentences.

A release from Correctional Investigator of Canada Dr. Ivan Zinger last month highlighted new numbers showing people of Indigenous ancestry accounted for more than 30 per cent of inmates — a "historic high."

Five per cent of Canadians identify as Indigenous.

Wawzonek said the territory's Indigenous incarceration rates are actually decreasing slightly, but are still "tremendously high."

What are we doing to support individuals not to re-offend?- Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T. justice minister

"One way or another, there is a crisis in the justice system, and we all have a part to play in it," she said.

Wawzonek said there is much out of the territory's control.

"I can't change the Criminal Code, and completely overhaul mandatory minimum sentences," she said. "I certainly can't overhaul the long history of systemic racism against Indigenous people in Canada."

But there are three ways N.W.T. might make a difference, she said.

Firstly, the territory could improve access to bail. Many prisoners in the North are actually awaiting trial or sentencing, and an improved bail system could return many of them to their communities, said Wawzonek.

But recent changes in the N.W.T. may have made it worse. The territory used to pay for airfare to transport people released on bail to the community they're supposed to be staying in, according to their bail conditions. Now, it only pays for airfare to the place where the alleged crime occurred.

Secondly, the justice system could do a better job "diverting" offenders who receive short sentences away from prisons.

"Maybe those offences aren't so serious," said Wawzonek.

As a criminal defence lawyer, Wawzonek previously raised concerns that there were not enough meaningful alternatives to prison.

Finally, she said the territory could do better to prevent inmates from re-offending.

"What are we doing to support individuals not to re-offend?" she asked.

Not a surprise

Peter Harte, a criminal defence lawyer who works in the N.W.T. and Nunavut, said he was not surprised to see Indigenous incarceration rates rising.

"At the root of Indigenous offending, in my experience, are issues like poverty, substance abuse, trauma, housing [and] lack of employment," he said. "In some respects, it calls into question whether or not a defence lawyer's role starts and finishes at the courtroom door."

WATCH | Defence lawyer Peter Harte on what the numbers indicate:

The percentage of Indigenous people in federal custody has reached an all time high. Indigenous people make up about five per cent of Canada's population, but now account for more than 30 per cent of the inmate population. Yellowknife defence lawyer Peter Harte speaks with guest host Peter Sheldon about what those numbers indicate. 21:14

Harte suggested the territory could do more to put the justice system in the hands of the affected communities. He said it would make the impact of sentences greater.

"Then it's not someone coming from outside the community, to whom you may have no loyalty," he said. "If you have to be accountable to a local elder or a family member, that may have a real impact."

As a means of avoiding prison sentences, Harte has experimented with "conferencing" — putting victims and perpetrators directly in conversation with each other about the impacts of their offence.

"There's no reason on the face of it that the two approaches can't be combined," he said.

'It's a social problem': minister

Wawzonek acknowledged Zinger's criticism that past efforts to address the issue had focused on tinkering "around the edges of the system."

She agreed with Harte that more foundational changes in the way the justice system treats Indigenous offenders may be necessary.

"It's a social problem, it's a [Canadian] cultural problem," she said. "So we have to really, I think, be looking at how we look at Indigenous people in Canada."

With files from Mark Hadlari and Peter Sheldon