Supreme Court judgement aims to keep aboriginals out of jail


MONTREAL — With too many aboriginal people in Canada’s prisons, judges are being encouraged to look at alternatives before they sentence aboriginal offenders to jail sentences.

Indians and Inuit comprise only three per cent of Canada’s population, but 15 per cent of the inmates in Canadian jails are aboriginal.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s April 23 ruling in the case of Jamie Gladue, a young Indian woman from British Columbia, is intended to help correct this imbalance.

Gladue had asked the court to overturn her three-year sentence for the 1996 murder of her common-law husband.

She claimed that her aboriginal status was a mitigating factor in the crime, although a provincial appeals court judge had already decided that there were no special circumstances arising from her aboriginal status or the victim’s.

The Supreme Court didn’t accept Gladue’s request for an appeal, either, but its justices did use her case to remind other judges that they should be “particularly attentive to the circumstances of aboriginals.”

They said that differences in culture, language and socio-economic opportunities can create “unique” circumstances for aboriginal people, and, in some cases, these may mean that alternative or shorter sentences are more appropriate than jail.

Judgement affects Nunavik

In Nunavik the impact of the Gladue judgement on sentencing is already being felt.

During a recent court term on the Ungava coast, Quebec circuit court judge Normand Bonin often referred to the Gladue judgement as he handed out conditional sentences to offenders.

These conditional sentences — that is, sentences that offenders serve out in their communities — usually include such conditions as curfews, a prohibition on alchohol consumption, counselling and regular check-ins with police.

Kuujjuaq’s legal aid lawyer, Stéphane Godri, said the Gladue judgement will likely encourage judges to consider more conditional sentences or suspended sentences. They may opt to send offenders into treatment programs rather than to jail.

“With the judgement, a judge may look at ways to be creative,” Godri said.

Godri said that a repeat offender with a history of break-and-entering would usually be sent back to jail.

“Now, with this judgement, the judge might look at why he’s doing B-and-Es and recommend some alternative treatment,” said Godri. “What’s clear in this judgement is that you have to consider alternatives to jail if it’s going to help the offender.”

But Kuujjuaq’s Isuarsivik Treatment Centre can accommodate only two offenders in its programs, so most will end up in facilities in or around Montreal.

The Makivik’s 1993 Justice Task Force report, and Quebec’s 1995 report on justice for aboriginals both recommended putting more legal services and infrastructure into Nunavik.

The Kativik Regional Government recently finalized a three-year agreement with Quebec to develop more community-based resources in Nunavik, such as local parole agents (called “community reintegration officers”), justice committees and justices-of-the-peace.

Nunavik lags behind Nunavut

But a KRG lawyers estimate that the development of locally-based services lag more than 15 years behind those in Nunavut.

The Maliktautik Community Reintegration Centre (meaning in English — “a support for getting back on one’s feet”) is expected to open by January, 2000 in Kangirsuk. With space for eight to ten men, this halfway house will be the first community facility to serve adult offenders in Nunavik.

So, when judges search for some alternative program for offenders, they will soon have this additional option in Nunavik.

But no judges live in Nunavik, and while two lawyers live in Kuujjuaq, there are none in the Hudson Bay communities.

There aren’t any detention facilities in Nunavik, either. This means that up to 30 Nunavimmiut can be found in preventive custody in Amos, a community some 1000 kilometers south of Nunavik, while they wait for a court hearing.

Many wait all summer because the traveling court doesn’t sit in Nunavik from early June to late August.

The KRG recently passed a resolution calling for a detention centre to be built in Nunavik. This facility would also be able to house the 35 to 45 Inuit men who are now at the provincial St-Jerôme Detention Centre near Montreal.

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