OTTAWA - The Assembly of First Nations accused the government of undercutting its own plans to improve conditions on reserves with the Conservatives' tough new crime bill.
National chief Shawn Atleo said that Bill C-10, dubbed the ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act,’ will have the opposite effect on aboriginal communities.
Atleo told the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee the bill will make it even harder to break the cycle of crime that many aboriginal youth find themselves in. That will make it harder to end the poverty and lack of education on reserves the Conservatives have promised to address, he said.
“The direction that this is heading in does not support the notion of First Nations creating safe and secure communities,” said Atleo, appearing by video link from his home in British Columbia. “Because the young people we are talking about right now, they are more likely to end up in jail than end up in school.”
The bill would impose tougher sentences for a wide range of convictions including youth repeat offenders, and will impose mandatory minimum sentences for offences such as sexual assault and drug trafficking.
Statistics Canada has reported that most violent crime is declining but the Conservatives tough-on-crime approach has proven popular with voters who overwhelmingly support harsher sentences for criminals according to polls.
Any changes that trigger an increase in the prison population is bound to have a significant impact on First Nations. Aboriginals make up just 3.75 per cent of the general population but 18 per cent of federal prisoners come from aboriginal communities.
Atleo testified that putting more people in jail is the wrong approach. He said aboriginals involved in drug offenses are often users themselves and treatment is preferable to incarceration.
“As someone who’s worked in the addictions treatment field right here in my own home territory, it’s really intervention, it’s support, it’s rehabilitation,” he said.
The notion that aboriginal people’s history of colonization, residential schools, and inter-generational poverty should be taken into account in sentencing became part of Canadian law after a 1999 Supreme Court decision. That ruling allowed judges to hand out less severe sentences based on an aboriginal defendant’s personal history, and allow them to enter rehabilitation programs based in aboriginal culture.
Roger Jones, a senior strategist with the Assembly of First Nations who also testified, said mandatory minimums will take that option off the table.
“After this bill becomes law those tools will no longer be there in some of those cases and those individuals will go to jail,” said Jones.
The Conservatives have championed mandatory minimums as a way of ensuring the punishment fits the crime.
Conservative senator Daniel Lang said when it came to crimes like sexual assault the victim's right to justice trumped the defendant's personal history.
"It would seem to me from the victim's point of view that maybe it might give, in this case her, some comfort, to know there was a consequence to that action," he said.
But Jones maintained sentencing should account for a person's background..
"I don't think you can ever avoid looking at the circumstances of an individual when determining what is the best thing to do in terms of addressing harms that have been inflicted," he said. "I think you still have to look at the circumstances."
With aboriginals already over-represented in the justice system, Jones predicted C-10 will hit First Nations harder than the general population.
Atleo said the only way to solve these problems is for the government to take the same approach to justice that it announced on education and economic development last month at its summit with First Nations leaders: devolving powers to First Nations themselves.
“Modifications to the present justice system cannot address the problems that exist,” he said. “The First Nations governments and jurisdictions must be supported so we can do better by our young people.”