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What reconciliation is not | Murray Fallis

Thursday, September 30, 2021 @ 9:54 AM | By Murray Fallis


Murray Fallis %>
Murray Fallis
I don’t know what reconciliation looks like.

As a non-Indigenous person, I support reconciliation, but it’s not for me to define. However, I do know what reconciliation isn’t.

Reconciliation isn’t allowing a group that is five per cent of our population to be 30.05 per cent of our prisons.

Reconciliation isn’t vaccinating Indigenous prisoners at lower rates than their white counterparts.

Reconciliation isn’t allowing Indigenous prisoners to disproportionately be subjected to the use of force while behind bars.

Reconciliation isn’t disproportionately convicting Indigenous peoples using mandatory minimum sentences, nor depriving Indigenous prisoners of adequate social supports to prevent them from reoffending at disproportionate rates.

If Justin Trudeau wants to know what reconciliation isn’t, he need only look inside his own prisons.

In 2020, Canada’s Correctional Service (CSC) investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger (who was appointed by the Trudeau government) called the treatment of Indigenous peoples in our prisons “a national travesty.” In his 2020 report, Zinger noted that CSC remains “impervious to change and unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.”

It doesn’t stop there. Behind bars, Indigenous prisoners face higher security classifications. They disproportionately experience instances of self-harm and represent 42 per cent of those in solitary confinement cells (structured intervention units). They are subjected to bias risk assessment tools. The obvious inadequacies of Canada’s prison system — abusive force, inadequate health care, psychological harm — are disproportionately experienced by Indigenous prisoners.

Zinger’s report gave a list of recommendations. To my knowledge, CSC has not implemented one. In other words, despite a correctional investigator calling our prisons a “national travesty,” complacency persists. Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair’s muted statements that he recognizes the “barriers” experienced by Indigenous peoples leaves one to wonder whether he even read the darn report. Though Blair reaffirms his “commitment to taking action to produce equitable outcomes for all Canadians,” frankly, mere “commitment” is no longer enough. Action is needed.

At John Howard Canada, I work with Indigenous federal prisoners across this country. These individuals come from all walks of life and struggle with very human obstacles. Some face severe mental health issues, drug abuse, literacy challenges, self-harm and guilt. Like all people, they need human support. They have been failed by our state, by our history and by our justice system.

Each continues to fail them every day that inaction persists. CSC’s rebuff of Zinger’s report shouldn’t just be a shame, but a scandal. It tells every prisoner — Indigenous or not — that they are not worthy of social supports, dignity or human rights.

As Trudeau ponders the road to reconciliation over the coming years, I would urge him to pick up the phone and call Indigenous leaders like Vice-Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Kim Beaudin. Beaudin is one of the dedicated individuals who assists Indigenous prisoners in their time of need. With limited access and CSC’s unreceptive ear, individuals like Beaudin struggle by phone to provide the best support they can, in the worst of circumstances. The fact that they are not actively consulted when an Indigenous prisoner faces a mental health crisis, speaks for itself.

As a non-Indigenous person, I do not know what the road to reconciliation looks like.

I sure as heck do know that our prisons just aren’t it.

Murray Fallis is a lawyer with John Howard Canada.

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