As It Happens

Why this senator pushed stiffer penalties for violent crimes against Indigenous women

Independent Sen. Lillian Dyck has been pushing for harsher sentences for those who attack Indigenous women — and now the government has agreed to accept those changes in the Criminal Code.

Justice minister vows to pass changes to Criminal Code based on MMIGW report recommendations

Independent Sen. Lillian Dyck has been pushing for stiffer penalties in cases of violence against Indigenous women since 2015. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)


For years, Independent Sen. Lillian Dyck has been pushing for harsher sentences for those who attack Indigenous women — and now the government has acted. 

Justice Minister David Lametti said Monday the government will adopt changes to the Criminal Code that will require judges to consider stiffer penalties for violent crimes against Indigenous women.

Those changes come in the form of amendments to Bill C-75, the government's criminal justice legislation, requiring judges to prioritize denunciation over rehabilitation in cases of domestic violence, and to consider the "increased vulnerability" of Indigenous women during sentencing. 

It comes two weeks after the final report from the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls recommended violence against Indigenous women be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing. 

Dyck, who proposed the amendments and is a member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Why should those who commit acts of violence against Indigenous women ... be treated differently by the courts?

The families have told us and we actually have some data that demonstrate that when … it's a female Aboriginal victim, at least for homicide, that the charges are downgraded more often.

And also when it's a female Aboriginal victim, the time ... that the perpetrator gets until he gets parole is actually shorter.

So there's definitely, [it] looks like, some kind of systemic discrimination within the justice system.

By drawing attention to it and making Aboriginal female identity essentially an aggravating factor, then it ensures that the Aboriginal female victim is given consideration and treated more fairly.

You pushed for this back in 2015. ... Why was it rejected then?

I think that the main obstacle has been ... up until the report came out from the national inquiry, was that people are used to the Section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code

[It's] called the Gladue provisions, wherein for all offenders, especially for Aboriginal offenders, the court tries to find a way to divert the offender to ... treatment other than imprisonment.

Because we all know that, unfortunately, our prisons are full of Aboriginal offenders and this was a way to try to reduce the numbers.

But that provision has worked against … all Aboriginal victims, essentially,  because it's only for the perpetrator.

Lorelei Williams, right, whose cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered and whose aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978, wipes away tears while seated with Rhiannon Bennett, left, after responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Domestic violence against Indigenous women is, quite often, the perpetrators are Indigenous men who are already dramatically and drastically overrepresented in the prisons. ... If there are stiffer sentences for this violence against the women and longer sentences, does that not just mean that there'll be more Indigenous men in prison?

It could be.

But on the other hand, why should it be a shorter sentence what it's an Aboriginal female victim?

How could it possibly be fair to an Aboriginal female victim when she's assaulted by an Aboriginal male and he gets some kind of special consideration but she doesn't?

Isn't it quite often, though, that the circumstances that ... the justice system considers is that whatever the offender has gone through, that perhaps some kind of addiction assistance, some sort of restorative justice thing, something more like the Aboriginal view of justice, is more healing and more appropriate?

That's what it's supposed to do. But, unfortunately, I don't think that that's actually the case.

One of the best ways to protect [women] is to take the abuser away and put them in a prison. Otherwise, the woman can still be re-victimized.

We should also note that when it comes to murder... it's something like a third of the people who murder Indigenous females are not Indigenous. 

Are those non-Indigenous offenders … getting the same reduced sentences and same treatment as the Aboriginal offenders?

The number I quoted to you was the perpetrators in total.

And, in fact, we did try to separate it out according to non-Indigenous and Indigenous perpetrators. The numbers are small, but in the case where it was an Indigenous victim, the years to parole were about half of what they were when it was the non-Indigenous victim.

There's some complex gender-race interactions, depending on the gender and race of both the victim and the perpetrator.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his remarks during ceremonies marking the release of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women report in Gatineau, Que. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

If I understand, you're saying it's possible it's not just that the ... justice system takes into consideration Indigenous principles in order to have a lighter sentence, it might also be that there is this built-in bias against the Indigenous victims?

Yes. There is, unfortunately, very negative stereotypes about Indigenous women.

Written by Sarah Jackson and Kate Swoger. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.