by Justin Piché, PhD (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)
* Click here to access a version of this op-ed that was published online by the Ottawa Citizen on 16 March 2017 *
Shortly after the 2015 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated his Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to conduct a review of penal reforms initiated by the Conservatives during their decade in power. Among the outcomes sought through this process was to increase the “use of restorative justice processes and other initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration amongst Indigenous Canadians”.
To date, little concrete action has materialized on this front, while new reviews of some mandatory minimum sentences and laws in various sectors impacting Indigenous peoples have been announced. Canadians still don’t know how the broader review of the penal system is progressing. We don’t know what measures the Government of Canada will be taking to build capacity for restorative justice to expand access to processes that aim to meet the needs of perpetrators, survivors, and other parties impacted by criminalized acts, conflicts, and harms. We also don’t know whether a plan to roll-back the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples – which is intimately linked to colonialism and its oppressive structures that still have reverberations today including the reserve system, residential schools, mass adoption and the like – will ever materialize.
What Canadians do know at this point is that the Liberal Government of Canada is now embarking on a vast infrastructure spending program that currently lacks an overarching strategy to generate economic growth and transform communities across the country for the better. This could perhaps explain why last month $56.6 million in federal infrastructure funding was allocated towards the new $75.8 million, 112-bed Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre that is slated to replace the notoriously decrepit and crowded 68-bed Baffin Correctional Centre despite the fact that the Liberals critiqued prison expansion in the Harper years while in opposition. In a jurisdiction whose average cost to house just one prisoner was $597.85 per day in 2014/2015, one would not have to get too creative to find more effective alternatives that would not drain Nunavut’s coffers for decades to come. This largely federally funded project is also taking place in a jurisdiction whose territorial prison system managed the highest adult rate of incarceration in the country (534 per 100,000) in 2014/2015, with Indigenous peoples representing 100 percent of the territory’s prison admissions that fiscal year.
Having not concluded their penal system review, the federal government has still opened the door to funding penal infrastructure that runs counter to their commitments. Having done this, Ottawa should expect more of their provincial-territorial counterparts to come knocking on the door for prison construction funding if they haven’t done so already – jurisdictions like Newfoundland and Labrador whose plan to build a 373-bed facility to replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s was put on hold due to decreases in offshore oil revenue.
None of the above is surprising given that the current Liberal Government of Canada is in the habit of making contradictory public policy. For instance, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale announced a National Immigration Detention Framework in 2016 to “enhance alternatives to detention”, while making “key investments in federal detention infrastructure”, which took the form of a $138 million allocation towards renewing migrant warehousing facilities in Laval and Vancouver. With the federal government promising alternatives to confinement as they invest large sums of cash to expand detention and imprisonment, Canadians should again be asking themselves whether Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to deliver “real change” was really an empty gesture paving the way for more of the same.
Before the Liberal Government of Canada does anything more that will steal time from those pushed to the margins by placing them behind bars in ill-conceived, ineffective, inhumane and costly facilities, it should immediately enact a prison construction moratorium and encourage their provincial-territorial partners to do the same so that promising alternatives to confinement can be given consideration and an opportunity to flourish across the country.