Dial “V” for violence


June 19, 2009

Back in 1995, one of those big bad researchers who just about everyone in Nunavut loves to hate put out one of those big bad studies that just about everyone in Nunavut says we have too many of.

Called Crime, Law and Justice Among Inuit in the Baffin Region, the study was done by Curt Griffiths, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University.

Between 1992 and 1994, he and members of his research team dug up information from the Baffin’s 13 communities that few before them had ever bothered to seek.

They managed to produce, for example, the first publically available crime statistics for a Nunavut region.

But they did more than simply record bleak rows of inert numbers and turn them into rates and percentages. They talked to real people all over the region: social workers, family violence counsellors, community leaders, police officers, nurses, teachers, and lawyers.

What they found was shocking and disturbing.

“What we’re seeing is increased violence, increased people going to jail, more charges before the courts, and a mushrooming population that comes with a swelling population of young people who have no hope for what’s going to happen to them tomorrow,” an anonymous RCMP member said in one of those interviews.

This was 1992, nearly 17 years ago – a period of time that almost spans a generation. Even then, the Baffin region, home to more than half of Nunavut’s population, contained some of the most violent communities in Canada.

Did any elected officials pay attention? Of course not. Did anyone in any Inuit association pay attention? Nope. Did any of the bodies responsible for planning the new territory take this information into account? Ditto.

Most of the time they were too absorbed with obscure processes far removed from the real lives of regular people: the irrelevant intricacies of the land claim agreement and futile debates over issues such as where to put Nunavut’s capital or how to elect members of the Nunavut legislative assembly.

The SFU researchers predicted then that rates of crime would continue to increase. And they did. The rate of violent crime then was about four times the Canadian average. Now it’s seven times the Canadian average. And every year, at least one in five Nunavut residents are victimized by a crime and at least one in five residents is charged with a crime.

You can’t say Nunavut didn’t get fair warning. The information was there for authorities to absorb and act upon.

Federal, territorial and Inuit officials should have used it to plan for increasing numbers of violent offenders. They could have used it to work on evidence-based policies aimed at identifying and attacking the root causes of violent crime. And they could have used it to find better ways of helping traumatized victims.

But they didn’t. And Nunavut’s justice, corrections, legal aid and social service systems are now swamped by a tidal wave of violent crime that was entirely predictable.

We saw an example earlier this month. A Pangnirtung man spent five days rotting inside the notorious RCMP lockup in Iqaluit, whose conditions do not meet even minimal international standards for the detention of prisoners.

This happened because Nunavut’s only secure prison, the Baffin Correctional Centre, was already stuffed to its rafters with inmates, many of them either accused or convicted of violent offences. On the day that the Pangnirtung man arrived in Iqaluit, 95 men were jammed into an aging hell-hole that’s intended to hold only 66.

To be fair, the Government of Nunavut is not unaware of this issue. As many readers know, the GN plans to start building a new 32-bed prison in Rankin Inlet this year. But simple arithmetic should tell you this won’t be enough. And current plans by the federal government to prohibit the use of house arrest for a wide range of offences will put even more pressure on Nunavut’s overloaded correctional system.

In Iqaluit alone, complaints to the RCMP for the first five months of this year are 51 per cent higher than over the same period last year. In only five months this year they held 1,408 people in their holding cells – in a community of only 6,500.

And while rates of violent crime are leveling off, there are ominous signs that it’s growing more lethal, a trend that’s been painfully visible throughout the Eastern Arctic.

In Pond Inlet, a man tried to shoot an RCMP officer. In Iqaluit, a man was gang-raped and a woman was found dead in highly suspicious circumstances.

In Salluit, a man started a gun fight with police officers, then hid on a nearby hill, where he was arrested. In Nunavik, incidentally, the situation is even more pathetic than Nunavut’s. Many leaders there wallow in an even greater state of ignorance and denial.

And everyone remembers the 2007 triple-homicide in Cambridge Bay and the killing of Cst. Douglas Scott in Kimmirut later that year along with a long, dreary list of beatings, stabbings, rapes and mindless orgies of booze-fueled gun violence.

All this creates endless labour for over-worked cops, lawyers, judges and jail guards, all struggling within a system designed by people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge simple facts that lay under their noses.

So the next time some big bad researcher gives you information you don’t want to hear, pay attention. JB

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