Black parliamentarians issued a call to all levels of government on Tuesday to urgently confront the consequences of systemic racism and improve the lives of Black Canadians.
A group of eight Black MPs and senators released more than 40 recommendations, including the collection of race-based data and the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences, a reform that has been long-promised by the Liberal government.
Their letter is supported by 27 ministers of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 36-member cabinet, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Justice Minister David Lametti. Dozens of other parliamentarians, who are not members of the caucus, also signed it.
The calls for reform also include the need to cut barriers to economic advancement of Black Canadians, including ensuring Black-led businesses have equitable access to federal procurement contracts, along with new measures directed at Black-owned businesses disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
In a statement Tuesday, the parliamentary Black caucus said brutal acts of racism that have propelled the issue into the spotlight represent “only a very thin slice of the racism that Black Canadians experience in their daily lives.”
“We urge all governments to act immediately," they said. “This is not a time for further discussion."
Liberal MP Greg Fergus, the chair of the parliamentary Black caucus, said in an interview on Tuesday that racism is not just an issue of inconvenience.
“We need to stop this cold," he said. “It kills. Enough is enough.”
In addition to Mr. Fergus, the caucus includes Families Minister Ahmed Hussen, MPs Emmanuel Dubourg, Hedy Fry, Matthew Green, and senators Wanda Thomas Bernard, Marie-Françoise Mégie and Rosemary Moodie.
The goal of the recommendations is to push the country from a debate about whether there is systemic racism to a discussion about how to end it, according to Dr. Bernard, who is also a professor emeritus at Dalhousie University.
She said she hopes to see an initial response to the recommendations within a few weeks, but acknowledged that implementing some of the changes will take years.
The caucus’s statement pays particular attention to the justice and public safety systems where it says “the hard edge of systemic discrimination is perhaps felt most acutely."
In addition to the reform of mandatory minimum sentences, the group calls on governments to review restrictions on conditional sentencing, establish community justice centres across the country and invest in restorative-justice programs.
In 2015, Mr. Trudeau promised to review sentencing laws and his government promised the following year to cut the widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences by giving judges back their discretion over punishment. However, those reforms never came and Mr. Trudeau’s 2019 mandate letter for Mr. Lametti did not mention the issue.
In the interim, courts have struck down some mandatory minimums, deeming them to be “cruel and unusual punishment," resulting in a patchwork of penalties across the country.
The Prime Minister on Tuesday acknowledged the list of recommendations, but would not commit to the justice reforms.
“We are going to continue to look at that and other measures that we can move forward to make sure that our justice system does not continue to be unfair towards racialized Canadians and Indigenous Canadians,” he said.
On the economic reforms, he said the government will be “moving forward on a number of those recommendations.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former Liberal justice minister turned independent MP, asked Mr. Lametti at a parliamentary committee on Monday if his government will “finally commit to the necessary work originally promised in 2015 and repeal, in the justice system, the vast majority of mandatory minimum penalties.”
Mr. Lametti replied, conceding that racial minorities have too often experienced prejudice and systemic discrimination in the justice system and that this needs to change.
Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said Tuesday that systemic racism plays out in the federal correction system in the overrepresentation of Black Canadians and Indigenous Peoples.
While the overall inmate population decreased by approximately 3 per cent between March, 2011, and March, 2020, Dr. Zinger’s office said that the Black inmate population increased by 4.5 per cent, bringing it to 9.6 per cent of the total inmate population.
In January, his office also issued a pointed report, which said that Indigenous offenders now represent more than 30 per cent of prisoners in federal custody – a new high.
Dr. Zinger said that while federal correctional institutions do not have the luxury of choosing who is admitted to the system through the courts, they do have control over measures such as programming, rehabilitation and how offenders are released to the community.
“What we see is that where they have control, the correctional outcomes are actually poor for both Indigenous and Black offenders,” he said.
Indigenous offenders in the Prairies have a recidivism rate of 70 per cent, he added.
“That is just unacceptable,” he said. “Not enough is done to provide programming that lowers their risk of reoffending and that’s a public safety issue and this is why we’ve made so many recommendations to say you [corrections] need so better with respect to Indigenous people, as well as Black offenders.”
With files from Sean Fine.
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