Nova Scotia

Act to probe deaths of young people in N.S. care passes another hurdle

Despite calls from several Canadian senators, prison justice advocates and members of the legal committee to do so, the provincial government will not enshrine in law the need for an independent committee to review deaths that happen while an adult is in custody.

12 young people have died in the province's care over the last decade

Justice Minister Mark Furey says the aim of the bill is to reduce preventable deaths. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Despite calls from several Canadian senators, prison justice advocates and members of the legal committee to do so, the Nova Scotia government will not enshrine in law the need for an independent committee to review deaths that happen while an adult is in custody.

Bill 180, the Fatality Investigations Act, passed committee of the whole at Province House on Tuesday and will become law this week after it clears third reading.

The legislation creates committees that would automatically review any death of a young person in the care of the province or a death that's the result of intimate partner violence.

But critics of the bill have said there is nothing in the legislation to compel the committees' work be made public.

They also note the legislation specifically shields the committee work from the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a move that runs counter to the advice of the province's acting privacy commissioner, Carmen Stuart.

Most notably, however, leaving it up to the minister of the day to determine whether to call a death review committee for people in custody ignores the fact that 12 people have died in the province's jails and prisons since 2011 and does not do right by those who might die while in custody in the future, say advocates.

'Profoundly disappointing'

NDP House leader Claudia Chender, who proposed multiple amendments to the bill, all of which were rejected by Liberal MLAs, said it's "profoundly disappointing" the government would not listen to the advice of subject matter experts such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, social workers and the East Coast Prison Justice Society.

"This is not a government that's interested in collaborating," she told reporters at Province House.

The province's correctional system "continues to be a black box," said Chender, who pointed to how difficult it is to get accurate information about how many people are in correctional facilities, the representation of those people based on race and information about deaths in custody.

"We get stonewalled every step of the way and I think the reality is is that is an easier path forward. I think that it's hard work to open up the corrections system and I don't think this government has an appetite to do it," she said.

Justice Minister Mark Furey did get one amendment to the bill passed on Tuesday, which will subject municipal governments to the legislation. He said the move would mean death review committees would be able to engage municipal employees, such as police officers.

While he pointed out it was a suggestion made by the acting privacy commissioner, Furey said he continues to disagree with her other submissions on the bill. Subjecting the bill to the freedom of information act would mean government departments couldn't share information as part of committee work, he said.

Advocates will continue to push for change

"Unfortunately, in most cases, the numbers are so low that there's a risk of identifying the families involved and that's the last thing we want to do," he said.

Furey said he isn't dismissing the need for committees to review deaths of people in custody, but he said data is what's driving the decision to enshrine the review committees for domestic violence and children in care in the bill. The government says in the last 10 years there have been 25 domestic violence homicides and 12 young people have died in the province's care.

The aim of the bill is to reduce preventable deaths, said Furey.

Harry Critchley, vice-chairman of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said he and other advocates are disappointed, but would continue to push for change.

He said having a death review committee for people in custody isn't a matter of suggesting that issue is any more important than the others, but acknowledging the public has a right to know about such deaths.

"People think and expect that if someone dies in the care or custody of the province that the province will approach and investigate that in an open and transparent way and take steps with some real accountability to prevent that going forward," he said.

now