Gladue Awareness Project travels Saskatchewan to talk about Indigenous incarceration rates

The info seminars are aimed at informing Indigenous people, their legal counsel and others about the Gladue case, and how it can factor into sentencing.

Indigenous over-representation in jails rising despite 1999 ruling

Michelle Brass, manager of the Gladue Awareness Project, speaks at a seminar held in Saskatoon last week. (Submitted by Michelle Brass )

The organizers behind the Gladue Awareness Project in Saskatchewan hope it will help reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people behind bars in the province.

Presented by the Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp Native Law Centre of the University of Saskatchewan, the seminars are aimed at informing Indigenous people, their legal counsel and others about the Gladue case, and how it can factor into sentencing.  

"Not only are we are bringing information to the participants of the seminars, but we are also having a discussion on how Saskatchewan can better address the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people in the province," said Michelle Brass, the Gladue Awareness Project manager.

According to the 2016 census, Indigenous people made up 16 per cent of Saskatchewan's population. In 2016/2017, Indigenous adults made up 76 per cent of those admitted into custody in the province.

The Gladue case

Section 718.2 (e) in the Criminal Code states courts must consider alternatives to imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances and pay particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders

In 1996, Jamie Tanis Gladue, a Cree woman from British Columbia, was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of her common-law husband. Gladue appealed the sentence because the judge had not taken into account Gladue's personal history and background in sentencing, because she had been living off-reserve and "not within the aboriginal community as such."

So there is a problem, there is a gap.- Michelle Brass,  Gladue  Awareness Project Manager

The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada and in 1999, it ruled that the judge in the Gladue case had not properly applied section 718.2(e).

The ruling states it makes no difference if Indigenous offenders live on- or off-reserve, sentencing judges must still take into consideration the influence of Indigenous offenders' involvement with such things as residential schools, the Sixties Scoop or child welfare system. 

In 2012, Gladue rights were amended by the Ipeelee case, where the Supreme Court ruled the history of cultural oppression, abuse and poverty among Indigenous people needed to be taken into account when an Indigenous person's freedom is being decided.

Lack of awareness?

According to Brass, a lack of awareness could be the reason​ Gladue factors have been cited in only 290 cases in Saskatchewan during the last 20 years.

"The number of Indigenous people incarcerated has not been going down since the Gladue case, but in fact they have been rising," she said.

"So there is a problem; there is a gap."

The Gladue Awareness Project seminars point people to resources like the Community Legal Assistance Service of Inner City Inc handbook that identifies alternatives to incarceration, along with steps in understanding the Gladue research database that allows visitors to find cases that involve Gladue rights in Canada. The site was launched in April by the University of Saskatchewan.

Participants take part in a discussion about Gladue rights and the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

Brass said she met with the province, court officials, legal aid and First Nations and Tribal Councils prior to the tour to invite them to take part in the seminars.

"This is a discussion for everyone," she said.

"I am not going there to tell people what they need to do. My role is to go and inform, and gain research from the communities."

Forum for discussion

Peter Sutherland, a councillor from One Arrow First Nation, holds the Justice and Social Development portfolio for his reserve and said feels he gained more information from the seminar on Gladue rights than he had prior.

"The more First Nations people know about their rights, the better," he said.

"I loved the way it wasn't just the intake of information but a forum for us to discuss possible solutions, and I was happy that a lot of people gave their opinions on how we could change certain things. I learned a lot and was glad to take the information back to my home community."

The tour is halfway through its 16 stops and the next seminar will take place in Melfort on Aug. 15. It will wrap up in Regina in mid-November.