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Blake Desjarlais laboured to steady his voice.

On Thursday, the NDP MP for Edmonton Griesbach spoke at a public accounts committee meeting after the release of an auditor general’s report on systemic barriers facing prisoners in federal jails.

“(Correctional Service Canada) acknowledged in November 2020 that systemic racism is present in the correctional system; it’s long overdue that CSC remove the systemic barriers identified in this report,” he said, his bottom lip quivering.

“These are real people — why is it taking so long to address what is the basic human rights of people?”

Desjarlais told the committee that he had met with Indigenous offenders weeks prior at the Edmonton Institution for Women. He promised he would do better for them in Ottawa, where heated debates have sprung up around mandatory minimum sentencing and, most recently, bail reform.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievere and backbenchers alike have called for reforms to what they call a broken system. Conservatives want to strengthen bail so that serial offenders and those charged with firearms offences do not easily get bail.

Desjarlais takes issue with the Conservative stance, calling out language around “catch-and-release” policies as dehumanizing. It’s as if the politicians are talking about rounding up fish on a summer afternoon, Desjarlais explained in an interview.

Those who are caught and released, Desjarlais said, are disproportionately Indigenous people who have suffered because of fractures within communities from the effects of residential schools, the ’60s Scoop and the child welfare system of today, over which the Assembly of First Nations is suing the federal government to change policy and compensate children who were removed from their community and culture.

Blake Desjarlais, MP for Edmonton Griesbach, laboured to steady his voice at a public accounts committee. He visited a women's penitentiary in Edmonton and saw how the overrepresented Indigenous offenders have had their human rights denied. #CanPoli

Desjarlais doesn’t describe Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system as an Indigenous problem; “it’s a Canadian problem,” he told the committee.

Conservatives maintain tough-on-crime laws and policies like mandatory minimums are the solution for safer streets and less crime. But critics of such legislation, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), point out how tough-on-crime laws from the Harper era have compounded the steady rise of Indigenous overrepresentation in the prison system.

Some of the TRC’s calls to action include repealing all mandatory minimums, compiling annual reports on Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons and working to eliminate Indigenous overrepresentation in 10 years. From the time the TRC report was presented, that would be two years from today.

The auditor general’s report on systemic barriers revealed that for the 2020-21 fiscal year, Indigenous Peoples composed 27 per cent of the entire federal offender population; for women, that number was as high as 43 per cent.

The next year, those numbers rose exponentially.

Correctional Service Canada reported more than 50 per cent of women in maximum-security prisons are Indigenous. In total, Indigenous offenders make up 32 per cent of people incarcerated in Canada’s criminal justice system, while only representing five per cent of the country's population, according to an access-to-information request filed by Canada’s National Observer.

When Conservatives say the problem is getting worse and the justice system is broken, Desjarlais agrees. But he disagrees with the opposing party’s tough-on-crime solutions that call for bail reform and the return of the mandatory minimums that were repealed by the Liberals last year.

“They are attacking a part of the system that, if broken even more, will have worse results,” he said in an interview.

Desjarlais, who is from Fishing Lake Métis Settlement, wears a wool sports jacket and speaks fast like a postdoc hungry for tenure. He’s arguing for a more just justice system, winding between statistical facts, personal anecdotes and historical analysis within the same few breaths. He’s passionate. The personal is political when it comes to CSC: he says it’s one of the first times the commissioner has had to face an Indigenous person at the public accounts committee.

Blake Desjarlais wants Indigenous offenders to have access to a restorative justice model, rather than a western-Christian model predicated on punishment and redemption. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

“It takes a person like me to get elected to get the message all the way to this place because I haven’t heard it once yet,” he said in the committee meeting.

Desjarlais spoke to a number of Indigenous women offenders when he visited the Edmonton Institution for Women. Indigenous women across the Prairies are sent to the prison whether they are in low, medium or maximum security. It has created a pan-Indigenous crisis where women are held provinces away from their families, and where one Cree Elder, a support worker in the prison, is responsible for dozens of Anishinaabe offenders, Desjarlais said.

“[It’s] a kind of violence that tells you you're not important enough for us to understand who you are, you're not important enough for us to even ask you where you're from,” he said.

Desjarlais believes changes must come from the bottom up, including the emphasis on an Indigenous conception of justice that’s restorative, rather than the western-Christian model based on punishment and redemption, he said.

“If we really believe in a restorative justice model, we need to enhance the resources and spend the money. But more importantly, we need the government to actually listen to Indigenous leaders in this space,” he added.

The proper funding of Indigenous-led healing lodges would be a good start, Desjarlais said. Correctional Service Canada healing lodges have been criticized of late after an Indigenous woman died in a facility in Saskatchewan last month.

“Our restorative justice models, I don't believe at least, could ever fully function properly while maintained within the current Canadian justice system.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Keep reading

These "real people" are our most vulnerable people who are incarcerated in Canada. Most are there for non violent crimes. And, if you look closely, many of the violent crimes are done out of mental illness (including addiction) or desperation or poverty.
While incarcerated they are treated in ways that make them even less able to cope once they get out.
There are also many who are now incarcerated for peacefully protesting to save our planet.
The changes need to happen with our economic system, the justice system and the correctional system.
For this we need a better political system.

You notice when you look at places with low incarceration rates . . . they also have low crime rates, and they have both of those because prosperity is general enough and social programs effective enough that there aren't a bunch of people living in desperation. It's not hard . . . unless you're determined to CREATE lots of people living in desperation, so the workers will be too scared to push for higher wages and other stuff that cuts into profits.