MLAs grill justice staff on corrections at Nunavut legislative hearing
Auditor General says follow up report “very high” on list of future audits
Canada’s auditor general told Nunavut MLAs May 5 that longstanding problems with the territory’s correctional facilities are thwarting its justice department’s efforts to deal with them.
And recent attempts made by justice department staff to address issues in Nunavut’s notorious jails have only slowed the growth of those problems, not reversed it.
Michael Ferguson is appearing before MLAs at Nunavut’s legislative assembly in Iqaluit this week to answer questions about a highly critical report his office issued March 10 on the state of Nunavut’s jails.
“The report struck me as a compelling analysis of a longstanding problem,” Ferguson said May 5.
Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak asked Ferguson if he believes the audit will bring about the necessary changes.
Ferguson, who said he was equally as struck by the dedication of the justice department’s staff, replied that governmental departments often lose sight of the bigger picture because they get bogged down in the day-to-day of their jobs.
“Good cooperation from a department [during an audit], means a department knows the auditor general is a resource that can help them see the forest instead of the trees,” Ferguson said.
“Will your office be coming back to check on progress?” Angnakak asked.
Ferguson replied that his office normally does follow-up audits, however nothing had been scheduled yet.
“But the issues identified [in this report] I think are significant,” and a follow-up audit on the state of Nunavut’s jails would likely be “very high” on the list of possible future audits, Ferguson said.
Ferguson’s report, tabled in the assembly on March 10, found the Government of Nunavut failed in key responsibilities under the Nunavut Corrections Act.
The report referred to many well-known and recurring problems in Nunavut’s jails, including:
• chronic overcrowding at Iqaluit’s Baffin Correctional Centre leading to higher incidents of assault within the jail;
• structural deficiencies at the BCC putting inmates and staff in danger; staffing and case management issues at both the BCC and the Rankin Inlet jail; and
• the lack of proper oversight when placing inmates in segregation.
The report made around 20 recommendations, all of which the justice department agreed to implement and begin working on before the report was even released.
Representatives from Nunavut’s justice department were also on hand May 5 to answer questions from MLAs.
“Under my leadership… responding to those recommendations will be a priority,” said Elizabeth Sanderson, deputy minister of justice.
Sanderson said the department has already begun modernizing legislation and regulations relating to Nunavut’s jails as well as ensuring Inuit societal values are “reflected” in current laws and policies.
But moving forward is not entirely in the hands of the justice department and will require help from MLAs, along with the departments of finance and community and government services, Sanderson said.
Some MLAs took Sanderson to task, asking what she meant by ensuring laws and policies reflect Inuit societal values.
Sanderson explained that the Nunavut Corrections Act, grandfathered from the Northwest Territories in 1998, will be made Nunavut-specific after consultation with elders.
Joe Enook, MLA for Tununiq, said Inuit societal values are not adequately implemented throughout the government.
“Are they currently implemented in the justice department?” he asked.
Sanderson said it was the department’s “ongoing and daily intention” to reflect Inuit societal values not only in how the department treats inmates but also its own staff.
Isaac Shooyook, the elder MLA from the Quttiktuq riding, pointed out that Inuit societal values include acknowledging the trauma and pain many criminals have suffered which can lead to acting out and breaking the law.
One-on-one counselling with elders for inmates is therefore crucial, Shooyook said, and he asked Sanderson if it was possible to allocate more funding towards such initiatives.
“Cost is not a concern” for one-one-one counselling with elders, Sanderson replied, adding that service is available to every inmate at the BCC who requests it.
Shooyook also asked Sanderson about a reference in her opening comments about the justice department’s goal of “one day” housing all Nunavummiut inmates — including those serving federal time in southern institutions — in Nunavut.
Shooyook asked if that included building a federal facility in Iqaluit for inmates who receive a sentence of two more years of incarceration.
“If it was up to me, it would happen like that,” Sanderson said, snapping her fingers. But that requires discussions with federal officials and a substantial investment by the Government of Nunavut, she added.
Enook also asked Sanderson for clarification on her reference to “one day.”
“I don’t want to get into a debate, but I need some clarification: what does ‘one day’ mean?” Enook said.
“I can’t identify that date today because a lot of the decision-making is outside of my hands,” Sanderson replied.
But the department did put a date on one of the recommendations made by the auditor general: the need for 70 new jail beds in Nunavut by 2026.
Chris Stewart, manager of major projects with the justice department, told MLAs that a business case for creating extra beds is nearly complete and is scheduled to be tabled in the Legislative Assembly when MLAs begin their fall session in November.
The legislative hearing on the auditor general’s report is expected to continue until May 7.