Indigenous group calls for municipal input on Criminal Code amendment

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples asks local municipalities to help strengthen proposed Criminal Code amendment on drug offences

(File photo/Daily Herald)

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) sent letters to 32 municipalities across Canada asking for their support to strengthen Bill C-22 — a proposed Criminal Code amendment that could lower the high rate at which Indigenous people in Canada are jailed. 

CAP Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin reached out to city centres like Saskatoon, Toronto and Vancouver. He also included municipalities with higher Indigenous populations, like Prince Albert, North Battleford and La Ronge in Saskatchewan. 

The letters include draft motions for municipalities to prioritize “every available alternative to arrest and incarceration for any individuals in contact with the law, in particular taking into account options for culturally appropriate treatment and healing.”

CAP advocates for status and non-status Indigenous people living off reserve, many of whom Beaudin said are being harmed by both drug epidemics and “discriminatory and incarceration focused responses” by authorities.

“I am asking you to support this legislation with these strengthened amendments, and to call on Justice Minister David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, to make sure that Indigenous communities living in rural and urban areas are included in this conversation, and that our concerns are taken into account,” Beaudin wrote.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti introduced Bill C-22, an Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, in the House of Commons Feb. 18 with promises to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for some drug offences if passed. 

The federal government says that once passed, the new bill will help curb unequal rates at which Black and Indigenous people are sent to jail compared to other groups in Canada. People who struggle with addiction would also stand to gain from measures expected to reduce average sentencing for the simple possession of 14 of the 67 drugs listed as controlled substances in Canada. 

But the bill needs “more teeth” because it doesn’t propose a mandate for police not to arrest for simple possession, only requiring them to consider it, Beaudin said.

He called the “top down” federal legislation “a step in the right direction,” but said there are still concerns about whether it will be “genuinely impactful.” CAP wants municipalities onboard because that’s where real change happens, Beaudin said.

CAP is asking municipalities to partner with Indigenous communities and direct policing to conform with, and expand on, Bill C-22. La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said people of colour are targeted by law enforcement nationwide and La Ronge is no exception. 

Ratushniak said he’s receptive to “having a discussion” at town council about how La Ronge could bolster intent of the federal legislation on a local level. “This stuff does have to come from the top down. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to advocate and lobby for those changes to happen,” Ratushniak said. 

“There is no secret. The history is written on the wall. When you look at what’s been uncovered over the last 10 years, there’s a lot that’s still coming to light and a lot of education that needs to take place so that there can be better understanding and better relationships — to repair some of the trauma that has been caused.” 

As a northern municipality, La Ronge has no police force of its own and the RCMP is contracted by the federal government for all aspects of policing in the community. The nearby Lac La Ronge Indian Band reserve also relies on the RCMP. 

But that doesn’t leave La Ronge entirely without a say. 

“We are continuing to look at the private contracts that we have with the RCMP. So we can be very vocal about what our feelings and thoughts are,” Ratushniak said. 

“It’s good that the conversation is happening because then it means that people are actually taking it seriously. Hopefully that means that we are finally getting to that point where we can abolish the racism that has been happening for many, many years. I’m there to listen, and to learn more about how we can support removing that racism that goes back so deeply into history.” 

Ratushniak said while police do “have an important role to play” in keeping residents safe, some of the money being spent by La Ronge for three additional RCMP officers to patrol the community could go to organizations that reduce crime in different ways. 

“Under past councils there was this push for extra policing. It’s quite a costly amount if you look at the contract. This conversation actually happened and there wasn’t enough data to show whether or not it was actually doing what it was contracted for. So we don’t know if we’re actually seeing crime going down or up,” Ratushniak said. 

“People are realizing that there are potentially other ways that we can look at fixing the problem without it all just being policed. It’s how we try to rehabilitate that I think is the biggest issue here. It’s not removing the police completely. It’s just reallocating funds.” 

Beaudin said more cities and towns across Canada and Saskatchewan need to engage so that those jurisdictions are brought into the loop. Including Indigenous leadership and constituents should be a part of that process. 

Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne spoke with the Herald but declined to comment having not yet had a chance to read the letter. The Herald also reached out to North Battleford Mayor David Gillan and Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark who did not respond by press time. 

Beaudin quoted Clark as saying that you can’t ‘police your way out of crime’ during his latest election campaign and called on Clark to follow up on that now elected. Mayoral rival Don Atchison had accused Clark of “defunding the police service through creep” in a 2020 news conference, Clark then denied those allegations. 

Clark told reporters that Atchison was missing the point with an “unlimited” budget plan for policing. He said that while his incumbent council had “not been afraid to invest in policing” effective crime prevention requires a balanced approach. 

“Every police chief I’ve ever worked with, and every police chief I’ve met from across the country, has made the statement very clear: You will not police your way out of crime,” Clark said. 

“In order for us to make a safer community, we need to balance — make sure we have sufficient levels of enforcement and … address some of the root causes of crime.” Beaudin said Prince Albert could also play an important role influencing policy because it’s home to both federal and provincial prisons with high Indigenous populations. 

“Of any municipality in Canada, Prince Albert is definitely one of them. They could actually lead the country if they really focused on it,” Beaudin said. The city could improve relationships with Indigenous constituents by doing that, he said. 

Benefits of the legislation, Beaudin said, will depend on whether the federal government coordinates with provinces, municipalities, and Indigenous communities to make sure that enforcement measures reflect a “genuine movement towards community care.”

“Usually when we think in terms of changes to the Criminal Code by the federal government it’s ‘big picture.’ It’s time that they reach down and ask the community what their thoughts are. Particularly Indigenous people,” Beaudin said.

“This is a chance for municipalities to have input and really help their constituents. We have a massive incarceration rate and arrest rate when it comes to our people, and this is an excellent opportunity to change that.”

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Michael Bramadat-Willcock covers Saskatchewan's north with a focus on natural resources, climate change, mental health, reconciliation and equitable access to health care, education and other services. His work primarily appears in the Northern Advocate. He can be contacted at mbwillcock@paherald.sk.ca. His position was made possible by funding through the Local Journalism Initiative. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L’Initiative de journalisme local est financé par le gouvernement du Canada