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Trying to keep Indigenous people out of jail in Thunder Bay


Last updated 12/8/2020 at 10:37am


Indigenous elders are being called to serve on a council to help keep First Nations inmates out of Thunder Bay jail, where 13 inmates have died and many more have been injured.

THUNDER BAY, Ont.-Thirteen people have died in jail in Thunder Bay, Ontario, since 2002, and more than half were First Nations people-in fact, some report that 39 percent of incarcerated individuals there are Indigenous; others say that number is closer to 75 percent.

Of the 13 who have died, 12 were in remand, waiting for their futures to be decided. More than half were younger than 30 years old. And inquests still have not been completed on five of the deaths. Four deaths were ruled suicides, and three were caused by overdoses on methadone; another was from alcohol withdrawal.

Since 2002, repeated recommendations have been made for improvements in jail conditions, including more training in dealing with alcohol and drug use, more space, improved staff information flow, and construction of a new facility to replace the facility, which was completed in 1928 and is now falling apart.

Three of the eight inquests so far cite the lack of programming and supports for Indigenous inmates as part of the problem. One inquest called on the jail to "ensure Indigenous inmates have access to both programming and private, one-on-one counselling," which could be provided by a Native Inmate Liaison Officer (NILO) or an elder. Another recommendation calls for "at least one full-time Native Inmate Liaison Officer," who could facilitate access to Indigenous healers and elders.

Sol Mamakwa, MPP for the Kiiwetinoong riding toured the Thunder Bay jail in April 2019. "It's worse than I expected," he said of the place where his nephew died. "It's like a factory that produces broken Indigenous people, and it dehumanizes the young people and the young men that go in there.

"A jail should be able to provide support, heal, and provide the mental health [support] that's needed," Mamakwa said. "We need to be able to support people that have mental health issues."

He noted that conditions in the building were not safe for inmates or staff, including inmates sleeping in common areas without access to washrooms or running water and making it not surprising that staff quit or take stress leaves. More than 200 inmates are housed in the jail originally built for 125 beds. Besides deaths, savage assaults take place frequently.

"We try to get people out, but they just keep coming in. There's no end in sight," said the president of the union that represents the staff at the jail.

Since many who are familiar with the justice process are questioning the effectiveness of the process designed to prevent deaths of people in the government's custody, the solution being proposed by many is to put more emphasis on just keeping people out of the jails in the first place.

That's why 13 elders now sit on the Ontario Attorney General's elders' council

Marlene Pierre, one of those elders, says that education of those in the justice system is helping. For so long, she told CBC News, they saw Indigenous people as stereotypes, and now, 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. However, she says 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.

Others echoing this cry have developed services and programs toward that intent, including the restorative justice program through the Indigenous Peoples' Court (IPC).

The IPC includes 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 wrongdoing, tells his or her life story and the reasons behind what led the person to commit the crime.

With recommendations from the elders, the judge makes a plan for release or recovery. "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 is one of the IPC elders.

She also told CBC news, "We've had 80 percent 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."

While the programs work with many people and keep them out of jail, some may actually prefer jail time over justice programs. As one justice program coordinator, Roseanna Hudson, told CBC News, "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."

Others may see jail as a rest from the cares of their lives, such as providing for themselves, paying bills, and coming up with food to eat and places to sleep.

Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson Brent Ross has written, "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."

Pierre says change is coming to the correctional system, albeit slowly. Hopefully, not only will Thunder Bay receive a reprieve, but if the programs work, they could be replicated in other areas and help Indigenous offenders stay out of jail across the nation. And that just might be life-saving.


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