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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 ...

In December, a young aboriginal man named Richard Smoke drew a “deuce less” for what Mr. Justice Alan Whitten of the Ontario Superior Court described as a “vicious” 2007 beating of a man who will probably never recover fully from the attack. The ruling drew headlines – “Bad logic behind light Caledonia sentence” – and a call from Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak for the Crown to appeal.

Few of the tabloid reports mentioned that Mr. Smoke was a first-time offender who had already served 10 months in jail awaiting trial, and that his sentence included three years of supervised probation after release. Nor did they say his victim had sought out the confrontation at a housing complex in Caledonia, the scene of ongoing bitter standoffs over treaty rights. The man, who had earlier removed a Six Nations flag from the roof of the house, hopped a back fence to the property after being turned away at a police line in front.

Mr. Smoke's lawyer argued that those circumstances pointed toward a mid-range sentence for aggravated assault, 12 to 24 months, as compared with the maximum six years indicated for a repeat offender who assaults a vulnerable victim. The judge agreed. But because he also heard a Gladue report on how addiction and residential-school trauma affected Mr. Smoke's upbringing, critics concluded that a criminal was being coddled because of his race. (Mr. Smoke has applied to serve his time at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, one of a handful of Ontario provincial jails to offer programs for aboriginal people.)

In the light of such publicity, and despite steadily declining crime rates, many Canadians worry about crime. That concern is more easily appeased by a straight-line solution than by a complex program of rehabilitation that may run into a few zigs and zags – even if that path has better outcomes in the long run.

“Success is a process of many steps,” says Ms. Pettigrew, the ALST caseworker. “The steps may appear small to the general public, but for the client they may be huge.”

John Findlay, for example, hit a zag last spring, when he got drunk and disorderly at his father-in-law's house. He was arrested for violating parole conditions and served five months. But reforming a life is like that: It doesn't all follow the plan.

Northern exposure

A tough-love advocate might say Nunavut is the perfect place for stricter sentencing: Its crime rate is the highest in the country, six times the national average. But for Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, C-10 looks like a storm on the horizon.

The territory's only jail, Baffin Correctional Centre, was designed for 48 prisoners, and now holds double that. Many inmates sleep in the gym. The facility was declared unsafe by Nunavut's fire marshal in 2010.

A new prison at Rankin Inlet will fill up the day it opens, and won't address the territory's exported-prisoner problem, says Mr. Tarnow, the acting deputy minister of justice: The territory spends nearly a quarter of its $31-million corrections budget to house surplus inmates in provincial jails to the south, and those provinces may soon have no room for them because of C-10.

“It's overwhelming,” Ms. Redfern says. “C-10 is adding more burden and potentially more harm. Most of our offenders are also victims. Most of the harm is self-harm, or on one's family.” A recent RCMP report showed that more than 90 per cent of crimes in Iqaluit involve substance abuse, “and yet we don't even have an addiction centre in our territory,” the mayor says.

Even since the reforms of the late 1990s, there has been little change in the broader facts of life for aboriginal prisoners. Natives still tend to get longer sentences, higher security ratings, more time in solitary, and less time on parole or conditional release than non-natives.

“We're not seeing as much progress as we expected in those areas,” says Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator for the federal government, though he says it may just be taking time for the initiatives' effects “to work their way through the system.”

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