No defunding of police, but NWT’s justice is being adjusted
“While it may initially have been a global pandemic that illustrated the need for out-of-the-box thinking as it pertains to our justice and policing systems, it has been society’s recent awakening to the reality of racial injustice that has driven this home.” — NWT Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek, Minister’s Policing Priorities for 2020 – 2021, delivered to the Legislative Assembly in June.
The global pandemic could leave some lasting positive side-effects on the territory’s justice system.
Easier access to bail and use of videoconferencing to help accused persons stay in their communities before trial are two new policies being considered to be made permanent that I’ve learned about.
A lawyer told me that Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex has set up video terminals so that prisoners can see family members during remote visits. He said it “takes a bit of the sting” out of being incarcerated so far from home and family.
Also, calls for a residential treatment centre in the NWT for those struggling with addictions have apparently been heard. Sort of.
And the territory could emerge from COVID-19 restrictions around the same time as an updated Corrections Act will be fully implemented.
NWT Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek recently told a national legal magazine her government has managed since March to reduce the remand population by 63 per cent and its overall inmate population by 30 per cent.
Those efforts to protect inmates and staff from the disease by reducing the number of people behind bars could become the norm, as they answer a (pre-pandemic) national call to reduce the number of Indigenous people behind bars.
From that story in The Lawyer’s Daily:
In a strong show of co-operation, lawyers with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, who serve as the territory’s only Crown counsel, worked closely with members of the defence bar to craft consent releases where appropriate, and inmate applications for temporary absence were fast-tracked.
While there are still a number of breached conditions seen daily in Justice of the Peace Court in Yellowknife, local RCMP spokesperson Julie Plourde told me police “haven’t notice a trend in terms of criminality in our communities,” since the new policy has been in place.
Since a major round of national justice reforms in the mid-1990s, efforts have been focussed on reducing the number of Indigenous persons from ending up behind bars. More than two decades later, the situation has only grown worse.
Alternatives to incarceration were deemed necessary back then, given the reality that Indigenous offenders were overrepresented compared to he rest of the population. The groundbreaking Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, started in 1988, found at that time although Indigenous persons made up only 12 per cent of the population of that province, they comprised over 50 per cent of the prison inmates. Nationally, Indigenous people represented about two-per-cent of the population, but represented almost 11 per cent of persons behind bars.
Three decades later, despite making up just five per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 30 per cent of prison population.
As calls grow for reforms to policing and justice systems across the globe, the NWT’s updated Corrections Act — passed last August and hoped to be fully implemented by spring/summer 2021— contains some new measures that could be the answer to some demands made by justice-reform advocates.
Those include a local group supporting the US-based Black Lives Matter movement. Now, whether the average person who marched through the streets of Yellowknife earlier this year were doing so in support of the marxist political organization, or simply in sympathy of those people of colour who have suffered illegally at the hands of police, is up for debate. I mean, Black Lives Matter is a radical group. Black lives matter (lower case) is a statement that can’t be argued with.
But I digress.
In late July, while collecting information for a possible Cabin Radio story, I posed a series of questions to communications staff for Wawzonek and other elements of the justice system. While I didn’t receive enough new information for a full story, I think I have enough for an interesting overview blog, looking at the evolution of the NWT justice system.
To whom… good day,
Having read Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek’s recent interview in The Lawyer’s Daily, I have a few questions … with excerpts from The Lawyer’s Daily in bold:
The measures have helped the NWT government reduce its remand population by 63 per cent since March and its overall inmate population by 30 per cent, said Wawzonek.
Q: Is this going to be a permanent policy? Has there been any feedback, or hard numbers, regarding recidivism as a result of the number of normally incarcerated folks receiving interim judicial release or temporary absences? Keep in mind, I cover the courts daily and have been analyzing the dockets and especially keeping an eye on bail court.
Because of the nature of the federal-territorial funding agreement with the RCMP, so called “defunding” the police is not necessarily an option in the NWT, said Wawzonek.
Q; The minister met with organizers of the Black Lives Matter march. Did that group have any actual and specific suggestions/demands apart from “defund” the police? If so, please tell me. And will any if that group’s specific demands be included in future policy changes? And, as an aside, does the minister realize exactly what the group Black Lives Matter stands for? Has she read the group’s website (US and Canada)? Does she agree with the group’s stated political position and ultimate goals?
In some respects, said Wawzonek, the territory’s justice system can be a model for other parts of Canada. Its updated Corrections Act, passed in August 2019, focuses less on punishment and more on the rehabilitation and community reintegration of offenders.
Q: Regarding the new Corrections Act, is the full act still expected to be implemented in the winter of 2021? What form will public education on the new Act take and when can we expect to see some of that communications? What areas of the new act does the Minister believe the public needs to know?
Q: I would like some information on how which facility is being converted: What changes are being made, either with programming, staffing, or physical space alterations; who will be incarcerated there; who will decide the convicted person will be sent there; and have the judges been informed of this change? How extensive will addictions counselling be in this “therapeutic community,” as alcohol and drug abuse appear to be behind the great majority of criminal activity in the NWT? Of course, there has been extensive debate about whether we need a residential treatment centre in the territory.
I’m not in any super rush for this — I’d prefer detailed answers that some time has been spent on — so some time tomorrow would be fine. I am also contacting other parties for comment.
Thanking you in advance for response to my inquiries…
I received an answer to one of my questions. At least I was given a statement I could attribute to the minister. The GNWT’s Cabinet Communications office has come under criticism from an MLA and other media in recent months, but I suppose the staff was correct to punt me over to the justice department. CabComm deals with policy and politics. The bureaucracy handles the nuts-and-bolts type of questions.
To answer your second question, the below can be attributed to Minister Wawzonek.
“While we’ve unfortunately been unable to arrange a meeting with the organizers of the Yellowknife Black Lives Matter march as of yet, I look forward to hearing directly from them about their concerns and suggested areas of reform within the justice system here in the NWT.”
Your other questions are best suited for the Department of Justice for a response. You can reach out to Sue Glowach and she’d be happy to assist you.
So I went to Glowach, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, who was, indeed, happy to assist me. Her office provided the following from Ngan Trinh, a senior communications advisor:
- There have been several measures taken during the COVID pandemic to reduce the number of people in remand at NWT facilities. These include the cooperation of all parties in the justice system to ensure that only people who are a threat to public safety are remanded. As well, the courts are pursuing measures to keep accused persons in the community of arrest until their show cause hearing has been completed. In this way persons are only transported to Yellowknife and held at NSCC if they have been remanded. As Minister Wawzonek stated in the Lawyer’s Daily article, we are striving to continue to maintain and improve systems that have demonstrated their success.
- The Hay River South Mackenzie Correctional Centre (SMCC) has work underway to convert to a Therapeutic Community model. This model has been presented to the town of Hay River, the members of the Legislative Assembly and other stakeholders in fall 2019. Under this model, substance abuse is seen as a symptom of much broader problems and as such, a holistic approach is used that touches on every aspect of an offender’s life. With an emphasis on social learning and mutual self-help, individual participants take on some of the responsibility for their peers’ recovery. Providing help and support to others is seen as an important part of changing oneself under this model. A northern model has been created based on other successful facilities such as this in BC.
- To establish a therapeutic community at the SMCC, the facility required security enhancements to the perimeter fence and interior building. Placement in the therapeutic community at the SMCC will be based on an inmate’s security classification and programming needs. A screening process conducted by case managers will identify suitable inmates for placement at the therapeutic community. The SMCC currently has sufficient staffing to transition to a therapeutic community. Staff will receive the required training in order to provide effective supervision and guidance to offenders in the therapeutic community. Programming at the SMCC will continue to focus on factors that lead to criminal behaviour for offenders, which includes substance abuse programming. The SMCC has a psychologist on staff as well as traditional counsellors who provide counselling services to offenders.
So, to recap, the territory is inching ever so closer to having a residential treatment centre. Call it a “therapeutic community,” or whatever, a facility such as this is sorely needed. At present, the only option is to ship addicts who have come into contact with the law down south for treatment. This is part of the push in the updated Corrections Act to focus less on punishment and more on the rehabilitation and community reintegration of offenders.
And for whatever reason, Wawzonek’s promised meeting with “local Black Lives Matter organizers” — having likely been pressured to do so by regular MLAs, in the overheated rush to stay current with the headlines across North America following the death of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police — hasn’t materialized. Or at least it hadn’t by earlier this month.
Wawzonek did acknowledge in the Legislative Assembly that systemic racism within the RCMP exists. She stated “promoting confidence in policing remains a priority.”
The Lawyer’s Daily noted the RCMP provides policing services to the NWT under a funding agreement with the federal government that will see the territory’s policing services budget reach $47.8 million this year. The RCMP has detachments in 21 of the territory’s 33 communities.
“There is a history where the RCMP were the bringers of law enforcement and the bringers of justice into the North,” Wawzonek told the magazine. “So there’s a history here we have to reckon with. The upside is we’re trying to reckon with it and we’re going to reckon with it and the RCMP, I believe, can be partners in that. I don’t think they’re shying away from that conversation, notwithstanding it’s going to be difficult and the solutions are going to take some time.”
Because of the nature of the federal-territorial funding agreement with the RCMP, the magazine continued, so called “defunding” the police is not necessarily an option in the NWT.
The moves to keep non-violent accused in their communities prior to their cases reaching trial is positive for everyone involved. The next hurdle will be for the GNWT to improve access to reliable broadband internet access to ensure those remote bail and remand hearings can continue without throwing sticks into the wheels of justice.
Wawzonek, a strong proponent of restorative justice — something I first wrote about as a novel experiment being tried by the Crown in Manitoba in the late 1990s — said she would like to see other alternative forms of justice play a bigger role in the territory.
This meshes well with what I have learned about traditional Indigenous “justice” procedures, which is to restore the peace and equilibrium within the community, and to reconcile the accused with his or her own conscience and with the individual or family who has been wronged. We now call that restorative justice.
“Restorative justice as a philosophy can really be introduced from the starting point all the way through, and I’m looking for what levers I can pull because I don’t control the Criminal Code,” Wawzonek told the magazine.
“I do hope that we can continue to evolve our justice response in the North. There are a lot of things we do really well here, and there’s a lot of opportunity because of our really strong sense of community and a strong sense of respect between communities.”