Indigenous vice-chief calls on correctional service commissioner to resign

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin is calling for accountability after a panel of experts assigned to look into the use of Structured Intervention Units (SIUs), in Canadian prisons released a scathing report on Aug. 19 detailing how their work was obstructed, undermined and blocked by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

“The panel has now disbanded and will not be able to complete its work to ensure safety for prisoners in Canada,” said Beaudin, who worked as a justice of the peace for the Province of Saskatchewan for five years, and later as an advocate for incarcerated Indigenous youth.

SIUs are meant as a way to avoid solitary confinement and are implemented when an inmate is found to be a danger to themselves or others. The panel was supposed to gauge their effectiveness. Beaudin said they are essentially one and the same.

“I’m dealing with people in prison that have been cut completely off from their families. Literally cut right off. They’re not even allowed to talk to them. Their mothers can’t even visit them when they’re in prison. They’re not allowed,” Beaudin said.

University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob, who chaired the inquiry, said their work was thwarted by a lack of co-operation from the Correctional Service of Canada.

“Very simply, this panel has not been allowed to do its work,” Doob, wrote in an Aug. 19 memo attached to the report. Doob said the CSC did not provide workable data to go by.

Beaudin pointed to the death of Curtis McKenzie, a 27-year-old member of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, who took his own life in March while in the custody of the Correctional Service of Canada at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert.

“He suffered from (having been) in solitary confinement … We fought so hard trying to get some oversight and trying to make sure that Canada was following international law about torture, and obviously they’re not,” Beaudin told Canada’s National Observer in an interview on Thursday.

“It seems like once you are in the system you’re done. You’re hidden in the system. There’s no transparency, there’s no accountability for officials. They can do whatever they want.”

Beaudin said McKenzie was one of many.

“We have no oversight. I’ve counted four people who died in prison as a result of suicide alone. I believe two out of federal (prison) and two provincial (prison) in Saskatchewan … That was just in the last month and a half,” Beaudin said.

“This is another way of silencing people. These are the kinds of things that happen behind closed doors that we don’t hear about.”

Beaudin said the panel of experts appointed to investigate SIUs gave him hope that change was on the horizon.

“It was a faint hope but that’s gone now.”

Beaudin pointed the finger at CSC commissioner Anne Kelly, who he said has responsibility within the public service for the actions of her department, and for implementing the policies set out by cabinet to lower the disproportionate rate of Indigenous people in federal prisons.

“It’s time for her to step down. That’s what I think. She should step down because she’s clearly not doing her job … She was given a mandate by Trudeau. It’s clear that she’s not following that mandate,” Beaudin said.

Beaudin also called for Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair to bring fresh blood to the CSC leadership. Ideally someone with a background other than corrections, he said.

“Somebody who has a different way of looking at things. Who comes to it with a different lens. Not bringing the stereotypes that they learned when they went through the system themselves,” Beaudin said.

Beaudin lambasted the CSC for what he called a “failure to expedite releases of prisoners due to COVID-19, and a failure to implement oversight promised in 2018 relating to suicide in prisons.”

He said it’s time to re-examine the CSC’s spending priorities.

“I know that after this pandemic passes they’re going to have to look at making cuts overall to Canada’s budget where they spend money and prioritize money” Beaudin said.

“Increasing a budget at Correctional Service of Canada shouldn’t even be a priority. It’s time that we defunded the Correctional Service of Canada”

Blair’s office said the government continues to value and support the SIU Implementation Advisory Panel (IAP) and intends to renew the appointments of the Chair and its members so that it may complete its work.

“Minister Blair has spoken with the chair of the Implementation Advisory Panel, Dr. Anthony Doob about the Panel‘s serious concerns and has asked the Correctional Service of Canada to work with the chair to develop a work plan that will help ensure the panel gets all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner,” Blair’s press secretary Mary-Liz Power told Canada’s National Observer in a written statement.

Power said the government has made commitments to expand programs to keep at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system, make drug treatment courts the default option for first-time non-violent offenders, and introduce legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The SIUs are supported with an investment of $448 million for new staff, infrastructure and mental health care. These investments will support enhanced assessment and early diagnosis of inmates at intake and throughout incarceration, enhanced mental health care, support for patient advocacy services and 24/7 health care at designated institutions,” Power said.

The federal inmate population increased 1.2 per cent since 2010, while the Indigenous inmate population increased by 52.1 per cent.

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The rate of Indigenous incarceration within provincial correctional facilities in Saskatchewan is 76 per cent and is 65 per cent at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

According to the most recent national data available from the annual report of the office of the correctional investigator (2018-2019), “Indigenous offenders are overrepresented in the number of incidents of attempted suicide, accounting for 39 per cent of all such incidents in the last 10 years.”

The CSC said it is working to improve those numbers, but said it could not provide the number of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people who have died by suicide in their custody by press time.

“We recognize that there is an overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in our correctional institutions, which is a reflection of the disparities within our society that we must all work to fix — here at CSC as well as within our criminal justice system,” CSC spokesperson Marie Pier Lécuyer told Canada’s National Observer in a written response.

“Addressing this systemic issue takes time and we know there is more work to do. We are committed to ensuring that Indigenous, Black and other racialized offenders are afforded the same protections, dignity and treatment as others, consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act, and CSC’s policies,” Lécuyer said.

She said a critical component of addressing systemic racism at CSC lies in “our ability to listen, learn and take action by working in partnership.”

On Nov. 30, 2019, a new correctional model was introduced which eliminated administrative segregation, also known as solitary confinement.

“CSC has been — and continues to — actively work on the IAP to provide the data they requested, so they can complete their important work. We are committed to providing the panel with what it needs as we continue to work collaboratively with them,” Lécuyer said.

The CSC said commissioner Anne Kelly personally met with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and has had ongoing correspondence with them this Spring about ways to work together.

“We have a positive relationship,” Lécuyer said.

Kelly said she reached out to National Chief Robert Bertrand again after Canada’s National Observer asked for comment on Friday.

“There is great strength that comes from working collaboratively with Indigenous partners, both nationally and locally, and we benefit greatly from their knowledge and involvement,” Lécuyer said.

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Robert Bertrand told Canada’s National Observer that solutions don’t lie in keeping Indigenous people locked up, but in working to lower that number. He said the CSC has to find a way to “bring fresh air” to the discussion.

“So many times, if an Indigenous person has a mental problem the answer (from Canada) was ‘let’s throw them in jail.’ That’s not a solution,” Bertrand said. Bertrand said the number of Indigenous inmates in Canada needs to go down and that he’s willing to work with the CSC to that end.

“We are the perfect organization to sit down with the Corrections Service of Canada to find these solutions. Let’s bring the percentage down of incarcerated Indigenous people … Let’s change the system … Let’s sit down and work co-operatively,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said what has happened to Curtis McKenzie and others while in CSC care is unacceptable.

“Let’s go into these prisons, find these people and bring their files to the light for the Canadian public.”