Bill to relax criminal drug penalties will 'make change in First Nations peoples lives,' says Sask. chief
Liberals say mandatory minimum penalties disproportionately harm Indigenous, Black offenders
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand says he was "overjoyed" to hear the federal government announce a new bill to relax penalties for drug offences.
"I'm very thankful," Arcand said. "It's going to make change in First Nations peoples lives."
The bill will repeal mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offences — penalties the Liberals say have disproportionately harmed Indigenous and Black offenders, and those struggling with addictions.
If passed, Bill C-22 would repeal more than a dozen mandatory minimum penalties on the books. It would also require police and prosecutors to consider alternatives to laying charges, such as diversion to addiction treatment programs, in simple possession cases.
Arcand said he has personal experience with a family member who has been incarcerated multiple times due to an addiction.
"When he went into the Saskatoon correctional system, there was no support for his crystal meth addiction," Arcand said.
He said while there are some supports inside the correctional centre, it's "not effective enough to make change in people's lives."
The federal government said the percentage of Indigenous offenders federally incarcerated for an offence with a mandatory-minimum penalty has almost doubled in over 10 years, and that 39 per cent of all Black and 20 per cent of all Indigenous offenders in federal institutions were admitted for an offence with mandatory minimum penalty.
Arcand said he's seen some improvements over time through working with the province and that this federal bill will support further changes.
"There has to be a better investment from both governments to really address those circumstances moving forward in a positive manner so we can address these addictions issues. Being in jail doesn't address those issues."
He said questions remain about how to help people who enter the criminal system.
"How do we get them when they go to court? If it's a minor drug offence, how do we get them help? How do we ask them if they want to go to a treatment facility? Why does there have to be a treatment facility in another province?"
With files from Catharine Tunney, Christian Noel