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(Vivienne Flesher for The Globe and Mail)
(Vivienne Flesher for The Globe and Mail)

Law and disorder: What Bill C-10 could mean for Canada's native people Add to ...

By his own reckoning, John Findlay has spent 25 of the past 33 years in jail. He has gone in and out of prison since his first arrest at the age of 17 – mostly for petty property crimes, sometimes violent, often committed after he had been drinking.

He tells me in a soft voice that he's a pretty tough guy. I believe him. There was the time he tried to wrench away a man's laptop in the street, and ended up stabbing him three times with a penknife. The victim survived; Mr. Findlay spent six years in Joyceville penitentiary. Then he was back on the street, much as before, a bundle of anger and fear.

“I didn't learn anything, being in prison all my life, except to hide my fear and deal with it through violence,” he says.

In 2010, he was about to take a plea offer for another stretch of “deuce less” (two years less a day) when someone steered him to the Toronto Gladue court, a special tribunal for aboriginal people. A year and a half later, he thinks he's gaining on his No. 1 goal: “to figure out how to live outside the Correctional Service of Canada.”

He's living sober at Sagatay, a Toronto transitional shelter for aboriginal men. He has been through addiction and anger-management sessions, enrolled in a life-rehabilitation program and met with Vern Harper, an “urban elder” who presides over sweat-lodge ceremonies and spiritual services. Those encounters changed his life, and got him thinking about following Mr. Harper in helping younger aboriginal men keep out of trouble.

“I never made long-term plans before,” says Mr. Findlay, who is originally from Kenora, Ont., grew up in foster care and residential schools, and has two daughters he hardly knows. Now, he is part of a long-term plan – one created by Patti Pettigrew, a caseworker with Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto (ALST), to help him become part of the solution to the stubborn problem of aboriginal crime.

Mr. Findlay's story is rare for a man with his history. And it may become much more so if Bill C-10 passes third reading in the Senate, which is currently holding hearings on the draft that the House of Commons passed in December. The legislation, a medley of 10 bills on the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda, includes mandatory-minimum-sentencing rules that will curtail judges' abilities to deal out alternative sentences. That could undo a decade-long effort to find culturally specific ways of diverting inmates such as Mr. Findlay away from serial engagements with the justice system.

Native Canadians make up less than 4 per cent of the general population, but they account for 22 per cent of prison inmates. Many of those are young men who have grown up in poverty and high unemployment, and who have lower-than-average education levels.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said recently that aboriginal children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. More will go to jail after C-10, and many will end up in the gangs that flourish in western and northern jails, where more than 70 per cent of inmates are aboriginal.

“What we're doing with C-10,” says Jonathan Rudin, program director of the ALST, “is to increase our reliance on things that don't work.”

The realization that more jail time and standard programs weren't reducing aboriginal crime found expression in federal law 16 years ago. Amendments to the Criminal Code directed judges to consider the life circumstances of all offenders when sentencing, and especially those of aboriginal people.

A Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1999 and further legislation fuelled efforts to make healing lodges, spiritual ceremonies and native-elder interventions available to federal prisoners. That includes a Pathways healing unit nearing completion at the Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security prison where about half the inmates are aboriginal and nobody's doing soft time.

The idea was that the cultural damage historically sustained by native communities helps drive anti-social behaviour. Get inmates connected with their own traditions, and they should be less likely to reoffend.

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