Mr. Speaker, I will not cover the ground already covered by the members from the Liberal Party and the Bloc. I will focus on a particular aspect of the amendments introduced in the House today.
The work the committee did and the amendments the committee proposed dealt with the most serious offences. It is unfortunate that the minister chose to introduce the amendments to this bill today when they could have gone to committee for full and open debate. The committee could have had some witnesses come forward to address some of the issues that have been raised in the House today.
I will focus on one particular group that would be adversely impacted by the proposed amendments in the House; that is the first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
We have had briefing notes from the Assembly of First Nations, in which they comment on the overrepresentation of first nations people in the criminal justice system. It is important that I highlight a couple of statistics the Assembly of First Nations has raised of the very serious concerns about the overrepresentation of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
The assembly says that 2.7% of the population in Canada, as of March 31, are first nations, but they represent 18.5% of all federally incarcerated prisoners in Canada. In 2000 approximately 1,792, or 41.3% all federally incarcerated aboriginal offenders were 25 years or younger. That is a shocking number. The number of incarcerated aboriginal women has also steadily increased from 1996-97. In the year 2003-04, they represented an increase of 74.2% over seven years.
Those are numbers that we must deal with as a Parliament and as a nation.
In addition, the Assembly of First Nations also identified the fact that aboriginal offenders represented 12% of the overall number of conditional sentences. That is an important fact, and that is the item that is before this House today, in connection with sentences.
There a number of recommendations that the Assembly of First Nations had specifically made. One of them is that we continue with the aboriginal justice agreement, which had been in development. However, it also emphasizes the fact that restorative justice has played a role in harnessing the rate of overrepresentation of first nations people in the criminal justice system and it is more consistent with the values of first nations than the prison system and can result in restoring harmony in the communities.
Those are all very important factors that this House needs to consider.
I want to quote from a letter from the Teslin Tlingit Council. They wrote a letter, dated October 20, which included a briefing it sent to the justice committee. I want to quote from the letter because I think this is a very important element. It states:
Notably we are concerned with the Prime Minister's refusal to endorse the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights which speak to the right of self-determination, as well as [the Minister for Public Safety's] response to the Federal Correction Report findings that First Nation inmates face discrimination within the Canadian justice system, followed by the recent federal bills tabled by [the Minister of Justice], which in our world view contribute to the already high rate of incarceration of First Nations people.
This is in context of the Teslin Tlingit's attempts to have a justice system as part of their agreed terms in their treaty.
In the briefing it provided to the committee, it indicated that:
Within the Yukon, conditional sentences had proven to be an effective instrument utilized by the Territorial Courts working with First Nation community processes, such as the Teslin Tlingit Peacemaker Sentencing Panel. Conditional sentences have contributed towards the promotion and exercise of community accountability and support of offenders to achieve the successful completion of their conditions, while also acknowledging and responding to the interest of those who have been victimized by a crime. The result is that families are kept together with a focus on balancing retribution and rehabilitation of the individual, which provides for the benefit of the overall community.
This element is important. A member of the government just talked about the fact that opposition parties have no concern for the victim. However, the Teslin Tlingit peoples specifically talk about the fact that conditional sentencing is an important element in not only considering the victim, but considering the overall health and well-being of the community. This element has been left out of the discussion.
In addition, the Teslin Tlingit have made a specific recommendation around what is perhaps a potential solution here. They say:
Consultation with First Nations would inform parliamentarians that the majority of offenders require social support to address root issues of self-destructive and offensive behaviour. Resources directed towards enforcement and institutions create a false sense of security for a short period of time. Institutional programing is often ineffective as the work is done in isolation of the realities of a community with little of the required changes to assist in the offender's reintegration to their family or community.
It is this overall comprehensive approach that all of us in this House would agree is very important. It is very important that there are enforcement regulations that do fit the crime, but we also feel that there need to be adequate resources in prevention and in support and rehabilitation.
In the recent annual report of the correctional investigator, we again have a report that talks about the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal peoples, first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples who are in prison. The investigator highlighted a couple of key elements. He said:
Over the past decade, our Annual Reports have made specific recommendations...addressing the systemic and discriminatory barriers that prevent Aboriginal offenders from full benefit of their statutory and constitutional rights and that significantly limit their timely and safe reintegration into the community.
He goes on to say that first nations, Métis and Inuit represent “18 per cent of the federal prison population though they amount to just 3 per cent of the general Canadian population”. He states that the correctional service does not control admissions to penitentiaries, but it does have the constitutional and statutory obligation to manage sentences in a culturally responsive and non-discriminatory manner.
Given the fact that we have this report from the correctional investigator which talks about systemic and discriminatory barriers, it would seem incumbent upon us to use other tools such as conditional sentences to make sure that first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are receiving justice measures that are more culturally appropriate and to also deal with their overrepresentation in the current federal prison system.
He notes in his report that aboriginal women are overrepresented. I pointed to this earlier in the Assembly of First Nations statistics. He talks about the fact that aboriginal offenders, once in prison, are less likely to be granted temporary absences and parole or are granted parole later in their sentences, are more likely to have their parole suspended or revoked and are more likely to be classified at higher security levels. He says that is just as true today as it was 20 years ago, so clearly nothing much has changed in 20 years. It is a sad comment on the way the justice system has these systemic and discriminatory barriers.
In wrapping up, I want to re-emphasize the position that has been put forward by the Teslin Tlingit,which is that there should be consultation and the cultural perspective of first nations, Métis and Inuit communities needs to be taken into account.
I want to close by mentioning the importance of investing in community resources. There is a youth detox and youth stabilization program under way in my riding, run by a program manager and called ADAPT. This program is aimed at helping youth deal with addictions and substance abuse. The local RCMP officers in our community are actively involved in this program because it is a critical element in helping youth stay out of the prison system and also in working closely with the community to make sure that rehabilitation is there to help potential young offenders, their families and the community at large deal with some very serious issues.
I would urge members of the House to reject the amendments proposed by the government and get back to looking at the original bill, which actually deals with some very serious crime issues but also encourages us to look at conditional sentences as a tool before the courts to deal with some of the cultural issues facing first nations, Métis and Inuit communities.