Madam Speaker, I am honoured to be the last member of my party to speak to this bill, which does not use overly accessible language. The administrative subtleties of the prison system are only rarely revealed to average Canadians. Indeed, there are those within the legal profession who specialize in this field. To illustrate the scope of my observations, I will draw on my experience in the legal aid office where I worked for two years.
I will pick up where I left off during my last intervention. In 2006, after I was called to the bar, I returned to the land of my ancestors and was hired by the legal aid office. I was assigned to the itinerant court. I was a criminal defence lawyer, and I represented Innu and Naskapi people in remote regions. The court travelled from place to place, and I represented people charged with criminal offences.
During my two and a half years in the legal aid office, I worked with another lawyer, Ms. Gaudreau, who worked exclusively on the complaints and grievances from inmates at the Port-Cartier institution. In my riding, there is a maximum security penitentiary 35 minutes away from Sept-Îles, and Ms. Gaudreau worked full time on those files. I had many conversations with Ms. Gaudreau over the years. I even went to the penitentiary several times to see how such cases were handled. Among other things, thanks to my time in that office, I saw that there were enough contentious claims from the penitentiary to make up the majority of a defence lawyer's, in this case, Ms. Gaudreau's, workload. The presence of a maximum security penitentiary in my riding also enabled me to deal directly with criminal files involving federal prisoners as part of my professional practice. There were not many of them, but there were some.
In addition, there was a large aboriginal presence in the Port-Cartier correctional institution. Accordingly, holistic aboriginal programming is offered at this institution. This holistic program includes a healing process borrowed from traditional Innu and Naskapi ways of life, a process that focuses on the principles of reintegration into one's home community.
In September 2011, the last time I toured my riding, I was asked to meet with the director of the Port-Cartier penitentiary, who wanted to talk to me about continuing this holistic program at his institution. We discussed the various measures that had been proposed over the years. The program has been in place for several years now. There is an area on the penitentiary's grounds where inmates who identify as aboriginal can go to get back to their roots. These inmates receive regular visits from elders and can have innu mitshu, that is, traditional food, inside the institution. The goal of all this is to help them reintegrate into their communities after they have served their sentences.
A Statistics Canada publication from July 2009 highlights the higher proportion of aboriginal federal inmates who need help in areas like social interaction, attitude, employment and community functioning compared to non-aboriginal inmates.
As for social reintegration factors, problems and contentious issues in communities and on reserves are often resolved using aggression and methods that are outdated by today's standards. All the measures that come under the complaints and grievances hearing process incorporate this new aspect of communication and rethinking the adversarial process that is common in our society in 2012.
No examination of the complaints and grievances process that is part of the dynamic framework unique to the prison population can ignore the large proportion of inmates who do not have a high school diploma or a job. This situation results in many comprehension difficulties—problems understanding the subtleties of the complaints and grievances process available to inmates who want to appeal an administrative decision by the institution.
Given the long sentences served by prisoners in federal penitentiaries, it is conceivable for their everyday lives to be regulated, as in a type of micro-society. Guarantees offered to all Canadians, such as access to the justice system, may be modified so that they respond to the prisoners' situation.
This is where the complaints and grievances process comes into play; hearings are held for these cases based on an internal arrangement that promotes interaction between administrative authorities, staff and prisoners. A number of reports have established the importance of appointing a grievance coordinator within the prison's administration and increasing the resources allocated to the informal resolution of complaints.
This reasoning thus invites us to identify, develop and implement alternative methods for resolving contentious issues internally. The bill before us presents measures that are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the desired flexibility necessary in communications between prisoners and the authorities.
The internal complaints process offered to prisoners is, in and of itself, part of the rehabilitation process. I spoke about holistic procedures or measures. This is somewhat the same. It is rehabilitation. It is basically a healing process. Other than the purely clerical aspect of how complaints are lodged, the adversarial system that allows prisoners to lodge complaints and grievances gives them the opportunity to voice their concerns and ensures that the parties are able to discuss the facts and possible methods of resolution. This is thus an alternative method for resolving conflicts that is available and beneficial to prisoners. This principle of fairness allows prisoners or their lawyers, such as Ms. Gaudreau whom I mentioned, to present the facts and receive advice, at public expense if necessary—since, as I was saying, legal aid covers this type of case—in order to handle each case properly.
Just the simple possibility of designating inmates as “vexatious complainants” gives rise to many legitimate concerns, including concerns about the commissioner's discretion. It should be noted that no specific definition is found in the bill for vexatious or multiple complaints. What is more, labelling inmates as “vexatious complainants” will only fuel their sense of oppression, will not enhance the quality of relationships, and will even reinforce the adversarial nature of the relationship between the administration and inmates.
Having the Commissioner of the Correctional Service apply arbitrary rules to assess the pertinence of complaints will only unleash or increase hostile reactions, and undermine the relationship between the inmate population and the administration. According to my understanding of the situation, the complaints and grievances process provides an outlet of sorts for the tension often associated with the tumultuous life of inmates, especially in maximum security institutions. Often it involves the offenders in special protection. Just having access to this resource and having an opportunity to be heard and to make their case is a step towards rehabilitation. It is part of the journey that ultimately enables an individual to reintegrate into society and be an asset there. I submit this respectfully.