Renu Mandhane is director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law
How many people have to die alone in a jail cell, with only their troubled thoughts for company, before we demand an end to grave human rights abuses happening in our prisons? Edward Snowshoe is the latest casualty in a systemic practice that killed Ashley Smith, and likely contributed to the death of Kinew James as well.
Edward, Ashley and Kinew were all prisoners with serious mental health issues who were segregated for extended periods of time by the Correctional Service of Canada. They were segregated for months on end, despite their self-injurious behaviour and diagnosed mental health conditions. They all died much too young. Edward was 24, Ashley was 19, and Kinew was 35.
In 2012, the United Nations Committee against Torture found Canada in breach of its human rights obligations under the Convention against Torture. The UN found that Canada had inadequate infrastructure to deal with the rising and complex needs of prisoners with mental illness, and continued to use inappropriate and extensively prolonged solitary confinement to deal with them. The UN recommended that Canada increase the capacity of mental health treatment centres, abolish the use of solitary confinement for persons with serious or acute mental health issues, and otherwise ensure that solitary confinement is limited and subject to judicial oversight.
Edward Snowshoe died under the very conditions that the UN found amounted to violate the Torture Convention. Canadians should be outraged, and the world should not follow our shameful record. Despite these deaths, Canada is still seen as a global leader in mental health and corrections, which means that our treatment of prisoners like Edward, Ashley and Kinew sets the bar much too low.
Canadians should not let Edward’s death be in vain – we must demand that our government respect the basic human rights of the most vulnerable members of our society. Canada must implement the recommendations of the UN and the jury in the Ashley Smith inquiry: we must allow mentally ill prisoners serve their time in treatment facilities, and end the practice of long-term segregation without judicial review.
Edward Snowshoe died, but until the Canadian government acts to ensure that others don’t die in similar circumstances, it would appear that torture is alive and well in Canada.