Detention conditions in Nunavik substandard: Quebec ombudswoman
“[Inuit] are victims of a system that is designed for white people in the South"
Holding cells in Nunavik are dirty and overcrowded and the region’s detainees have limited access to water, clean laundry and fresh air.
Those were some of the violations discovered by Quebec’s Protecteur du Citoyen (Ombudsman), a watchdog for the province’s public services, on a 2015 visit to three Nunavik communities.
In a report released at a press conference Feb. 18, the ombudswoman made clear that detention conditions for Inuit detainees in the region are “substandard” and “unacceptable,” while crime prevention measures in Nunavik are “woefully lacking.”
“Inuit have the same rights and obligations as any other Quebec citizen,” said ombudswoman Raymonde Saint-Germain.
“However, the fact is that they face unacceptable unfairness when it comes to the correctional and justice system.”
The ombudswoman’s trip came in response to complaints filed to its office. So they sent a delegation to visit holding cells in Akulivik, Kuujjuaq and Puvirnituq last April.
The team noted that conditions appeared to be most strained in Puvirnituq where cells designed to hold one or two detainees might at times hold seven. Often, those cells would contain “incompatible” inmates, some of whom might be suicidal; others intoxicated.
The ombudswoman’s report, called “Detention condition, administration of justice and crime prevention in Nunavik,” also noted that inmates in Puvirnituq and some other villages were confined to their cells 24 hours a day, given they don’t have access to a secured outdoor courtyard.
Nunavik doesn’t have a correctional facility; in 2006, the region chose instead to invest money earmarked for a jail into Ungaluk, a crime prevention program that disperses roughly $10 million a year to wellness activities.
So once Nunavimmiut are arrested, they are held in a cell at their local Kativik Regional Police Force station until they make a first court appearance by telephone.
If the prosecutor objects to their release, offenders must travel south for their bail hearing.
But the report notes that up to 14 days can elapse between prisoners’ arrest and their arrival at their hearing in Amos, Que., often via Montreal.
If offenders remain in preventative custody, they generally stay detained in Amos while they await the circuit court to visit their community, at which point they are transferred back north for trial.
In 2014-2015, 369 offenders were flown north to appear before Nunavik’s circuit court before serving their sentences in one of 20 correctional facilities across Quebec.
The human and financial toll of that travel is severe, Saint-Germain said Feb. 18, noting that there isn’t a single Inuk or Inuktitut-speaking correctional worker in the province.
“[Inuit] are victims of a system that is designed for white people in the South,” she told a Feb. 18 news conference in Quebec City. “We have to adapt to their culture and needs… and stop asking them to adapt to ours.”
But the issues plaguing Nunavik’s justice system are not new, said Saint-Germain.
She pointed to recent reports, including one prepared by the Barreau du Québec last year, which found that the circuit court that serves the region has largely failed Nunavimmiut.
To aggravate the problem, the number of incarcerated Nunavimmiut between 2010 and 2015 grew by 64 per cent.
The majority of their crimes were assaults fueled by drugs and alcohol.
But Saint-Germain said it’s not helpful to point fingers, but rather to help develop a stronger management and vision within Nunavik’s justice system.
“These problems have been known for some time,” she said. “And a lot of money has already been invested. The solutions are well-known, but we must act.”
Asked by a reporter what message the report should send to the Kativik Regional Government, which oversees public security in Nunavik, Saint-Germain responded: “Clean the cells. You have the money.”
To address the issues highlighted in the report, the ombudswoman made a number of recommendations to the province’s department of public security. Those range from ensuring clean bedding in holding cells, and creating a secure space for detainees to spend time outdoors, to a more centralized correctional program for Inuit offenders.
The latter point could include having all Nunavik offenders incarcerated in a new correctional facility in Amos, set to open in 2016, the report said. The ombudswoman also advocated for an airlift service between Nunavik and Amos, to allow for court files to be processed more efficiently.