More than a dozen people have died in the Thunder Bay jail since 2002, and the effectiveness of the inquest process designed to prevent future deaths of people in the government’s custody is being questioned by many familiar with the process.
So the solution being proposed by activists and community justice workers is to just keep people out of jail in the first place.
Marlene Pierre is one of those activists. She estimates she’s been pushing for change on the justice file for “more than 50 years,” and now is one of 13 elders sitting on the Ontario Attorney General’s elders council.
Pierre says change in the justice and the corrections system has been slow to come.
But after working on a provincial program that educates people working in the justice system about the ongoing legacy and impacts of colonialism to Indigenous people, she’s seeing some positive change.
“We’re really turning a corner here where the people who are delivering justice just saw us as bad people who drank, who beat people up, who murdered people, without ever trying to understand the mental health issues or the impact of the residential school system and how it affected our people. You know, the dysfunction that was created by it, by the imposition of another way of government, another religion,” Pierre said.
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“All these things that impacted our people…that’s why you see our people on the street. You’ve got to try and understand why, how and when this all started. I mean, the physical and sexual abuse that we see even today in an intergenerational way, all of this stuff is the cause of our people being on the street, being in jail and having our children taken away from us,” she added.
Pierre says that education doesn’t change the “absolute terrible conditions at the Thunder Bay jail,” but keeping people out of the jail can help both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Indigenous Peoples’ Court helping keep people out of overcrowded jail
There are a number of programs and services that have emerged in northwestern Ontario with that exact intent.
Pierre points to one that has been particularly successful: the restorative justice program through the Indigenous Peoples’ Court (IPC).
While the IPC is not presently sitting because of the pandemic, it consists of a judge, elders, the offender and their supports, lawyers and sometimes the victim and their supports. The court is held as a circle, where the offender acknowledges their wrongdoing, shares their life story and the reasons that brought them to the point where they committed a crime, according the to Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre website.
For the people coming to these programs…it’s harder to have that hard look at yourself, to relive your traumas, than it is to go to jail.– Roseanna Hudson, Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre
The judge will then, with recommendations from the elders, “make a plan for release or recovery, whichever the person is facing, and we give them time and we direct them to supports that they need, whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s drug or anger management,” said Pierre, who sits at the IPC as one of the elders.
She added, “we’ve had 80 per cent success in that the people who have come before us have worked through all of the demands that we have made and are slowly turning their lives around. And it helps them and it helps their families, their parents, their children.”
It also keeps them out of an already overcrowded jail, said Roseanna Hudson, the justice program coordinator at the friendship centre.
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But Hudson added this isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“For some people we work with, going to jail is a rest. They don’t need to worry about where they’re getting their next meal, where they’re going to sleep the next night.”
Hudson said, “for the people coming to these programs, it’s tough for them to challenge themselves. It’s stressful to have to struggle with your traumas. It’s harder to have that hard look at yourself, to relive your traumas, than it is to go to jail.”
Many of the services that people who go through the IPC must attend have a focus on education as an approach to reducing recidivism.
“We want people to understand why they’re behaving the way they are…it’s growing up in trauma, learning about what that’s like and what that impact is…and then to understand their opportunities to get out of the [correctional] system,” said Hudson.
Change is coming, but it will take time
Through the creation of the Indigenous justice division, the provincial government is supporting these efforts.
Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson Brent Ross said in a written statement, “these programs aim to strengthen resiliency and cultural identity and reduce the likelihood of future involvement with the justice system.”
Ross added another ongoing project is “bringing Indigenous leadership and organizations, justice partners, and others together to establish a Kenora Justice Centre to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the local justice system.”
Change is coming to the correctional system, Pierre says.
“It’s not coming fast enough for sure, but I’m so happy that we’re making that curve…I mean, yeah, it’s going to be a long process and that’s all there is to it. But we have to keep on plugging. We have to keep on making that curve and I see so much happening that’s never happened before.”