Thompson’s Clogged Courts

Commentary, Government, Brian Giesbrecht

Thompson, Manitoba’s court system is terribly clogged. Those charged with offences and held in custody wait far too long for their bail hearings and the system is simply overloaded. Despite past valiant efforts to fix it, this problem has existed for years. Now, a group of despairing lawyers is petitioning the higher courts to act to improve the situation.

It is likely the higher courts will end up recommending hiring even more court personnel, increasing the number of flights between The Pas and Thompson, and possibly building a remand center in Thompson. Unfortunately, none of those changes, or any changes within the government’s power, for that matter, will make much of a difference. 

Here’s why: Thompson is surrounded by First Nations reserves, and wildly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people from those communities commit criminal offences. Most of the offences involve violence and alcohol – although, increasingly, other drugs are also involved. The police servicing the reserve communities are chronically understaffed and overworked. The perpetrators are largely male and their victims are overwhelmingly Indigenous and female.

To get a sense of how disproportionate the numbers are, a Saskatchewan study reported that an Indigenous male in Saskatchewan is 33 times as likely as a non-Indigenous male to commit a crime.  Amongst other factors, the clogging of courts in Thompson indicates that Manitoba numbers are likely not especially different.

The reserves are characterized by large numbers of families experiencing welfare dependence and too many affluent families ‘suffering’ from transfer-payment dependence.   Although many residents of the communities are decent and sober, too many others are involved in lives of idleness, binge-drinking and drug-taking. Unfortunately, these are the people who continue to fill Thompson’s courts.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember working in Thompson in the 1960s; Thompson then was a young town and the surrounding Indigenous communities were still self-reliant.  While the communities were poor, there was not nearly the dysfunction that is so apparent today.

At that time, the Thompson court system was tiny compared to what it is today. In fact, one magistrate and a few lawyers were able to look after the criminal justice needs of the entirety of northern Manitoba. Not so now. So, what changed?

Change came in the 1960s with the modern welfare-cheque, introduced in the United States as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In due course, similar measures made there way to Canada. While some families used the monthly cheques to lift themselves out of poverty, making better lives for themselves, others sank into dependency.

As in the United States, where the African-American underclass was hurt very badly by the introduction of enhanced government welfare, in Canada the growth of welfare hurt Indigenous communities the most. One result was the binge drinking lifestyle that now afflicts too many reserve residents and keeps Thompson’s courts backlogged and spinning their wheels.

Noted African-American author Thomas Sowell detailed the destruction wreaked on poor families by the good-intentioned but ultimately ill-fated War on Poverty – how welfare cheques and welfare mentality sucked the life out of poor black communities. Families went from two parent families to single mother families in one generation. In Canada, it is the Indigenous underclass that has been the most negatively affected  by such policies. Too many children are born into welfare dependence, and often addiction issues are at play to further strain the situation.

The Province has announced administrative changes but administrative changes will not fix a problem such as this.