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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 ...

He also notes that aboriginal peoples comprise many different tribes and cultures: A program conducive to Ojibwa needs won't necessarily suit Inuit or Haida inmates.

It will take very little time for Bill C-10's impact to start working its way through the system. As soon as it's signed into law, more people will go to jail, at a cost of $110,000 a year.

Unhealthy surrogate families

Between the 1996 and 2006 censuses, Canada's aboriginal population grew by 47 per cent, compared with 8 per cent for non-aboriginals. Almost half the aboriginal population in 2006 was under 25, the prime age for the onset of criminal and addictive behaviours.

If those young people go to jail, they find a community waiting for them – just not one that most Canadians would want. Aboriginal gangs are always competing for new members. Bigger gangs mean more violence and a more criminalized jail population.

“In most cases, you're taking non-gang-involved people and sending them where they become gang-involved,” the ALST's Mr. Rudin says. “So they come out worse than they went in.”

This is the tragic mirror image of the restored aboriginal community that the Correctional Service, with minimal resources, has tried to foster: With no stable family relationships in their pasts, young inmates are quick to fall in with the security and defined roles that gangs offer.

For many of them, culturally specific rehabilitation programs will remain a distant rumour. They will be left instead to learn skills and attitudes that won't make them any safer for their families or communities when they eventually get out.

Advocates for alternative approaches to aboriginal justice have not found an effective way to counter the “get out of jail free” rhetoric that flows when a Richard Smoke comes along. Still, this week's Ontario decision could open the possibility for the government to amend its mandatory-minimum provisions, without losing them entirely.

For example, a “safety valve” measure of the kind passed by the U.S. Congress in 1994 would permit judicial discretion to prevent cruel and unusual punishment. But the Minister of Justice has rejected that idea before, and even so, it would probably apply only to first-time offenders, like the man in the Ontario gun-photo case. Someone with a record like John Findlay's would draw the mandatory jail time.

Back at Sagatay, Mr. Findlay is feeling something that has been rare in his life – optimism. He recently coached a native youth anger-management group, and would like to do more. “Whether they can hear me or not, at least they'll know I'm talking from real experience, and I don't have an agenda they might be afraid of,” he says.

Perhaps that's what our public policy needs: More attention to the evidence gathered from real experiences, and less recourse to fearful agendas.

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