Governments ignored Inuit justice needs for years


Special to Nunatsiaq News

Unfortunately, you are quite right (“Dial V for Violence,” Nunatsiaq News, June 19)

This situation was entirely predictable and, possibly, preventable if the report’s findings and recommendations had been acted upon as well as other recommendations about justice that were included in a number of other reports, particularly the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (Criminal Justice — 1996.)

I recall that the Griffiths report was not well-received by the territorial government, or by the court, and was largely ignored.

After this report (and the RCAP reports) was released, we worked on the coming into being of Nunavut but in terms of justice matters, instead of considering doing things differently, it was decided to streamline the same old system, allowing the Nunavut court to deal with all matters on any given circuit — it was called the unified court. 

The “new” court could do everything — minor offences as well as more serious crimes and civil matters — during the same circuit, instead of having two separate courts that were already going to the communities.

(You will recall the Territorial and Supreme Courts of the Northwest Territories, which are still in existence in the NWT) but nothing else really changed. 

Yet, it had become obvious that a better way to deal with crime and conflict was to increase Aboriginal community involvement in dispute-resolution processes and, for the Inuit, that included the recognition of Inuit laws and dispute resolution mechanisms. 

Little was done in that respect but for the notable exception of the Akitsiraq law school, which included Inuit legal traditions in its program and provided Nunavut with a first cohort of Inuit lawyers.

(There were other Inuit lawyers, like Mr. Paul Okalik, but they were not part of a law school that had included those Inuit legal traditions in its law course.) 

Judges tried to accommodate Inuit culture within the system but it’s not their job to make changes to the court system – they are appointed to interpret and apply the laws, not to make them.  It is the elected officials and governments’ jobs to consult, decide and implement those changes.

No, instead governments decided to perpetuate the same old mainstream system that had been imposed on Inuit without consultation and despite the fact that it was widely demonstrated it did not work for Aboriginal peoples. 

So, more lawyers were hired, more judges appointed.  More people are sent to jail than ever and more jails are now needed to accommodate that system. 

Can anyone reasonably informed argue that sending people repeatedly to jail works?  That it prevents people from re-offending?  The evidence is there — it is usually meaningless and it made things worst by increasing the risks of violent crimes and so did the rate of such crimes incease.

This is not to say that jails are not needed — quite the contrary — but they are necessary only to keep away from society those people who are so violent that they cannot anymore live a normal life in a community without putting other people at risk. They should only be released when the risks become minimal. 

Short jail terms are generally ineffective and, for people who are new to crime, it often provides an opportunity to meet other inmates who have more experience in committing crimes and make contact with gangs and criminal organizations.  The chances of re-offending after a jail term are significant.

The Griffiths report stated, “strategies [were] required to reduce the high levels of dependency on government among Inuit.” 

In other words, instead of depending on the mainstream court system, most conflicts can be dealt with and resolved at the community level by members of the communities that use a mainly restorative approach. 

Canada chose to ignore this and the other reports as well as ignore Inuit legal traditions even though it is recognized at the international level that Indigenous communities applying their own laws have a better chance at reducing crime and victimization. 

Additionally, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) of the International Labour Organisation at Article 9 recognizes indigenous dispute resolution processes – provided they comply with international and national human rights legislation.

But Canada has never ratified that Convention, unlike most Andean nations.  Those nations, including also Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, do recognize indigenous legal traditions on their territories and have embraced legal pluralism.

Even though Canada chose not to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, it is important nonetheless to consider its articles 4 and particularly 5 that recognizes Indigenous peoples’ “…right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions…” as well as article 34, which states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their institutional structures and their distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs, in accordance with international human rights standards.”

This is the modern expression of Indigenous rights, based on an international consensus that only few countries (4 or 5) opposed, including Canada.

So, yes, the knowledge was there, with supporting data, but governments decided to ignore that and chose to continue with the old ways they knew failed Aboriginal people…  It is still there and, as you conclude in your editorial, wouldn’t it be time now to pay attention?

Pierre Rousseau worked for many years as a Crown prosecutor in Nunavik and Nunavut. He now lives in East Sooke, B.C.

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