Quebec Ombudsman slams detention conditions in the North

Nearly three years after the president of the Quebec legal society warned the provincial government that prison conditions faced by Inuit inmates in northern Quebec were appalling and deplorable, the Quebec Ombudsman upbraided the government for turning a blind eye to the daily violation of basic human rights, unacceptable detention conditions, and systemic shortcomings in the administration of justice in Nunavik.

remote arctic jails
Remote Arctic jails

Unsanitary and overcrowded holding cells, nauseating odours, soiled bedding, inaccessible showers, sanitation facilities that fail to provide detainees with privacy, and prisoners having to eat their meals on the floor are among some of the more disturbing findings made by the Quebec Ombudsman Raymonde Saint-Germain who likened Nunavik’s detention and justice system to the Third World. Just as troubling were her findings that detainees are kept in cells 24 hours a day because there are no outdoor courtyards, with some detainees having to wait as long as two weeks in preventative custody. The Criminal Code of Canada prescribes a maximum waiting time of three days.

“The investigation showed that deplorable conditions are tolerated in Nunavik, conditions that are below even the lowest acceptable standards and that are a serious violation of rights, including the right to dignity,” said Saint-Germain who tabled to the Quebec National Assembly a 101-page report replete with 30 recommendations aimed at correcting detention conditions, improving the administration of justice in Nunavik, and boosting alternative justice and crime prevention efforts.

None of these findings surprised Nicolas Plourde, the former head of the Barreau du Québec, who was part of a delegation that also visited the “Far North” in the spring of 2013. Plourde too saw “horrible and unacceptable” detention conditions. He saw cells designed to hold at most four people housing up to a dozen, with no possibility of being able to take showers. He also witnessed detainees eating on the floor because there were no tables or chairs. He noticed that prisoners had to sleep on flimsy mattresses strewn on the concrete floor because there were no beds. He also observed that detainees could not use washroom facilities in private.

“I could not believe that we had such conditions in Quebec – it makes no sense,” said Plourde, who wrote a letter on May 2013 denouncing the situation to the provincial justice minister and the public security minister after his trip. “The findings by the Ombudsman are alarming but have been known for a long time. Hopefully, this report will spur public authorities to do something.”

The Ombudsman’s team of two investigators visited three villages in Nunavik in April 2015 following complaints by prisoners. The investigation, originally aimed at determining if detention conditions respected detainees’ rights, quickly evolved into a broader investigation into the administration of justice and crime prevention efforts, explained Joëlle McLaughlin, one of the investigators and legal consultant to the deputy Ombudsman, citizen and user services.

There are no penitentiaries in Nunavik, located north of the 55th parallel and home to some 11,000 Quebec Inuit. Inmates arrested or facing trial are forced to share facilities in village police stations. Among the recommendations by the Ombudsman is a call to increase the number of cells, lower the occupancy rate in detention cells, ensure detention areas and bedding are clean, and allow detainees to spend time outdoors – all of which can be done at a reasonable cost, according to the Ombudsman’s report.

“The detention conditions are shocking but there are other things that are just as appalling,” remarked McLaughlin.

The administration of justice in Nunavik is also plagued with serious problems, added the report. The lack of jails in northern Quebec and the absence of videoconferencing technology often means that many Inuit offenders have to travel to Amos, some 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, for their bail hearings. Often times however prisoners are escorted as far as to Montreal and St-Jérôme for bail hearings. That’s expensive. In 2014-15, it cost at least $6.5 million to transport and incarcerate Inuit offenders, points out the report.

But there is also a social cost to transferring detainees to the south. Offenders are completely removed from their family and community support networks, “which hinders their social reintegration after imprisonment,” according to the report. Many Inuit offenders also do not speak French or English, which makes it daunting for them to assert their most basic rights.

At the same time the report underscores the fact the Inuit are “over-represented” in the justice and correctional system, largely due to substance abuse. In 2015, the number of Inuit who spent time in a correctional facility increased by 65 per cent compared to 2010, a situation that shows little sign of improving in coming years, said the report. “The lack of concerted action by the authorities involved has served to exacerbate Inuit social problems and as a result perpetuate stereotypes about the Inuit,” said Saint-Germain at a press conference, who is urging the provincial government to improve rehabilitation and addiction treatment services, consolidate justice committees, and introduce other alternative justice initiatives.

Nunavik community leaders welcome the report, said François Dorval, legal counsel to the Makivik Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation mandated to manage the heritage funds of the Inuit of Nunavik provided for in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. “The Inuit of Nunavik in some respects are treated like second-class citizens,” said Dorval. “There are unacceptable situations that must change rapidly, and we hope that the Ombudsman’s report will finally lead to change and the improvement of detention conditions.”

The Barreau, while also hoping that the Ombudsman’s scathing report will lead to a dramatic improvement, intends to move forward with some of the recommendations it made in its own report published in December 2014. Besides educating the Inuit about the roles of different players in the justice system and offering greater assistance to aboriginal law students, the Barreau intends to work with the provincial government to ensure that indictments are written in three languages, including the “language of the community,” said Claudia P. Prémont, the president of the Quebec legal society. “We believe we have a role to play when it comes to improving the understanding of our justice system,” said Prémont, who is also calling on the government to increase the number of para-legal advisors. “Our approach is to take small steps, one at a time, to be able to help the Aboriginals better understand our system and be more present within the legal society.”

But law professor Geneviève Motard, while cautiously optimistic that following the Ombudsman report the situation may improve for the Inuit, believes that real change is only going to come about when the Quebec government examines the relationship it has with the Inuit. “The problems are so much deeper than a question of financing,” said Motard, an aboriginal law expert who teaches at the Université Laval. “Quebec has difficulty seeing that it has a colonial relationship with the people of the North, and Aboriginal peoples in general. The Ombudsman has proposed very concrete solutions but much more is required to change the nature of the relationship between the government and the Aboriginal communities.”

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