In my last column (Part One) I briefly sketched out some aspects of substantive criminal law as it is enforced and applied in the Northwest Territories. I want in this contribution to comment upon some underlying factors which, at least sometimes, lead to criminal conduct, as well as aspects of sentencing.
At the end of my last piece I noted that the courts now recognize and accept that Canadian historical efforts to subjugate aboriginal citizens and communities have led to the present situation, where the incidence of poverty, family violence, substance abuse and other social challenges are higher among First Nations Canadians than others.
Problems which frequently play a role in criminal misconduct are not addressed as quickly or easily in the North as would be the case in a southern location. Social services, family support, mental health and similar programs are far more difficult to access in the Northwest Territories compared to the situation in a southern province. Of course, nothing in what I have written in this or my earlier column should lead to the conclusion that all northerners are alcoholics or criminals or wounded and lost individuals. It is well-known that the incidence of suicide is higher among aboriginal Canadians than other groups, and the problem is even more acute in the North. Individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide or through other tragedies, such as drownings or hunting mishaps (I have acted for persons who have lost two or three family members who sometimes simply never returned from hunting trips out on the Arctic ice) are often left to grieve without counseling or support programs and this too sometimes leads to anger and criminal misconduct as the individual attempts to find outlets for pent up emotions and feelings of tremendous loss.
Unfortunately, economics being what they are, treatment options for northern Canadians are very limited. In 2013, the only residential treatment facility for substance addictions in the Northwest Territories (located at Hay River) was closed by the government in favour, it said, of treatment programs which would be more locally based in communities. The government says it will focus on treatment regimes which are closer to traditional ways, and which will include components such as going on the land and engaging in other cultural practices in order to address and heal addictions and their underlying causes. In the meantime, citizens of the Northwest Territories now have to go to southern Canada if they are in need of intensive substance abuse treatment and counseling, even though this means further removal from family and other support systems, and from more appropriate cultural settings.
In other ways, as well, the impact of punishment can be different in the North, compared to other, more populous parts of Canada. Some efforts are made to accommodate cultural needs and practices within the correctional institutions in the Northwest Territories, but there can be no doubting or downplaying the dislocation and isolation felt by an offender from a small Inuit community such as Sachs Harbour (located on Banks Island, in the Arctic Ocean) who is brought south to Yellowknife to serve time in an institution here. Unemployment is high in many communities so the payment of fines can be a challenge, and some smaller settlements do not have the infrastructure necessary to establish and operate a fine-options program (the “community service work” option which allows offenders to perform work in the community in order to satisfy the payment of a fine).
Economics also adds to the severity of a sentence of imprisonment in the North. The main correctional centres for male offenders are in Yellowknife and Hay River. A smaller, lower security establishment is in Fort Smith, where the Territories’ only female custodial institution is also located. In one or two of the larger RCMP detachments (in places like Inuvik) it is sometimes possible for offenders to serve short sentences on weekends, but in most situations where imprisonment is ordered, the individual must be transported to one of the jails, which usually means separation by hundreds or thousands of kilometers from family, friends and community support. And unlike the situations in the South, where almost everywhere is connected by road to everywhere else, in the North most communities rely upon air travel as their connection to the outside world. However, the cost of travelling by air is usually prohibitively expensive, with the result that inmates of a correctional facility simply do not see their family members for the duration of their sentences. Some efforts are made to accommodate cultural needs and practices within the correctional institutions in the Northwest Territories, but there can be no doubting or downplaying the dislocation and isolation felt by an offender from a small Inuit community such as Sachs Harbour (located on Banks Island, in the Arctic Ocean) who is brought south to Yellowknife to serve time in an institution here. And any person ordered imprisoned for more than two years may find him or herself sent to a federal penitentiary in southern Canada, where the effects of removal from family and community are magnified exponentially.
A unique aspect of practice in the North is that the courts (and even Crown prosecutors) appreciate that such traditional practices as “going on the land” have rehabilitative value for individuals who have come into conflict with the criminal law. Almost without exception, most offences are committed when the accused are living in a community where there is access to alcohol. The very same persons, when travelling or living in the bush or on the tundra – and away from the lure and effects of liquor – almost always are valued members of their community, who are able to assist others by hunting, trapping and fishing to supply their family and others with food and supplies. More than once I have read letters of support from persons who express the highest respect, and who highly value, the skills of a client when he is “on the land” and able to provide for and assist others, including children and elders, who are not able to provide for themselves. All too often, the same person – my client – has committed terrible acts of violence when back in town, drinking, and acting out unresolved issues of anger and loss. Because of the healing and rehabilitative effects of allowing individuals to spend time on the land, living in ways which are closer to their traditional and cultural roots, judges are often very willing to accommodate such possibilities and practices when it comes to fashioning probation orders, firearms prohibition orders and similar forms of punishment.
Of course, nothing in what I have written in this or my earlier column should lead to the conclusion that all northerners are alcoholics or criminals or wounded and lost individuals. A unique aspect of practice in the North is that the courts (and even Crown prosecutors) appreciate that such traditional practices as “going on the land” have rehabilitative value for individuals who have come into conflict with the criminal law. Northern communities should not be seen as hotbeds of rampant crime. Most northerners, including those who have suffered in their lives, do not break the law, and even those who do often change their lifestyles and habits over the years, sometimes to the extent that they ultimately become respected elders and leaders in their communities. Just as it is distressing to hear the tragic and sad tales of personal loss and grief which are the histories of many of our clients, it is equally encouraging and up-lifting when we encounter such examples of resilience and strength.