Justice advocates await Ottawa's promised national Indigenous justice strategy

The federal government is promising a new national justice strategy to counter the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. British Columbia's model suggests a place to start.

Plan expected to model B.C.'s First Nations Justice Strategy, but Ottawa has no timeline

Keira Prince, 22, says a pre-sentence report with a Gladue component gave her a chance to raise her daughter, Lilah. (Keira Prince/Supplied)

When a social worker threatened to take her newborn away, Keira Prince knew she had to find a way to turn her life around.

Prince is from Nak'azdli Band, which sits 926 kilometres north of Vancouver. In 2017, just 18 at the time, she was facing trial as an adult on a break-and-enter charge — and the prospect of both jail time and separation from her daughter.

"I couldn't even imagine getting that first bond with your child taken away right after she's born," Prince, now 22, said of her three-year-old daughter Lilah. "She's my purpose."

Prince's lawyer requested a pre-sentence report with a so-called "Gladue component" — the legacy of a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that said judges must factor an Indigenous person's background into sentencing decisions, and consider alternatives to incarceration, as a way of countering the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

Prince's case has been cited by the B.C. First Nations Justice Council as an example of how the justice system should approach cases involving Indigenous defendants.

The British Columbia government signed a First Nations justice strategy last March with the province's 203 First Nations. It's a model the federal Liberal government is looking to expand on a national scale.

In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasked the federal Justice, Public Safety and Indigenous Services ministers with creating a new national justice strategy.

"We need to adopt new approaches that are based in true partnership, the recognition of rights and advancing Indigenous-led solutions," Justice Minister David Lametti's office wrote in an email statement to CBC News.

But it's still not clear when the federal government will unveil the strategy.

"It's still too early to discuss the form of that," Lametti said during a teleconference on Thursday.

Doug White, chair of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, said a good first step would be for the government to adopt his province's approach.

White said B.C.'s strategy has two goals: making the criminal justice system less harmful to and more appropriate for First Nations, and making space for Indigenous people to create their own, separate justice system.

'We've gone in completely the wrong direction'

The council aims to eventually have First Nations take over legal services from Legal Aid B.C., and to have more Indigenous involvement in cases through a network of 15 First Nation justice centres, where staff can provide expertise and support for Gladue sentencing reports.

White said the council wants to work with police and prosecutors to divert Indigenous people into restorative justice alternatives — even before charges are laid.

Doug White, chair of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, is calling on the federal government to sign on to B.C.'s First Nations Justice Strategy. (B.C, First Nations Justice Council/Supplied)

In its 1999 Gladue decision, the Supreme Court of Canada observed that Indigenous people made up about two per cent of the Canadian population but 10 per cent of the prison population in the mid-1980s. Right now, they make up more than 30 per cent of the prison population.

"We've gone in completely the wrong direction," White said.

"Our work is aimed at once and for all bringing [in] a fundamental shift in the criminal justice system to overcome the clear challenges that we have."

As part of a national Indigenous strategy, White said he would like to see a national Gladue implementation plan and resources to help Indigenous communities develop their own approaches to justice.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger said the challenges facing Indigenous people in prison are enormous — they tend to serve longer periods behind bars than non-Indigenous prisoners, are placed in higher security institutions with fewer programs, and self-harm more frequently.

"Any effort [to address the problems] is, of course, welcome," Zinger said.

"The problem with some of the previous attempts is that [they have] not yielded the desirable outcome."

Instead of a strategy, Zinger said, there needs to be concrete federal action within established time frames.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde wants to see some progress on a national Indigenous justice strategy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he also wants to see work progress on the national strategy and on official recognition of First Nations law.

"If there is systemic racism and systemic discrimination in that system, you need systemic change, transformational change," Bellegarde said.

"The sooner we start sitting down and collaborating and working together, [the sooner] we can map that out."

Prince was taken from her mother, grandmother and sister and put into foster care at age 11 with a cousin. She said she ran away repeatedly to get back to her mother, leading to repeated run-ins with the police. Her teenage years spiraled into petty crimes like shoplifting, break-and-enters and assault.

"I was angry because I wasn't home, so I acted out any way I could," Prince said. 

"It turned into a game for me. I felt like if I was left at home, I wouldn't have had a reason to run. I wouldn't have had a reason to run away from the cops all the time because they're going to bring me back to where I don't want to be."

In the end, Prince avoided jail under probation, on the condition that she attend parenting courses and finish her high school education.

"It gave me the beginning of my life with my kid," she said.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.