Canada Fails Churchill’s Test

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Colin Alexander

I’ve just sent $5 to the Public Safety Minister, the minister in charge of Canada’s Orwellian-named Correctional Service. He spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on hell-hole prisons—hundreds of dollars per inmate a day. But they do no correcting to enable inmates’ integration back into society after release. With an immensely disproportionate number of Indigenous inmates, jails are the new residential schools—only worse.

After being jailed to await trial for a minor offence, a teenage Indian, probably provoked by conditions in the jail, killed another Indian in a scuffle. Upon transfer to a federal jail, Adam Capay spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for 52 months. The United Nations defines solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture.

Recently, I learned that a young Ojibwe man from Winnipeg was in a federal jail in Quebec. I’ll call him Charlie. His mother and grandmother in Ottawa wanted to know where he was. But everyone in the system flatly refused to tell me—because of confidentiality! After dozens of phone calls, I finally extracted the answer so I could write to Charlie. 

Weeks later, the jail called to say Charlie wanted to list me as an approved contact, and said I could expect his call the next day. When that didn’t happen, I called for an explanation. They told me Charlie had to make the call. A day later, Charlie’s letter arrived saying he didn’t have money to pay for the call. That’s why I’ve sent the Public Safety Minister five bucks.

In this age of low-cost phone service, why can’t Corrections find the money for inmates to make phone calls? Don’t they understand their need for the support of friends and family so they don’t commit suicide or get into more trouble?

Neither the Truth and Reconciliation report on residential schools nor the Murdered and Missing Women’s report delivered recommendations, as they were mandated to do, for fixing systemic causes of marginalization. It eluded both inquiries that educated and skilled people in or preparing for rewarding employment seldom commit suicide, are seldom murder victims and seldom disappear. And they seldom go to jail. The TRC report exaggerated the horrors, real as some once were, as well as the numbers enrolled. So now the uninformed blame all ills on those schools. It ignored successes, like a few federal cabinet ministers, and the Inuit thoracic surgeon who graduated in Inuvik. Later, a debate in the Senate about women in prison delivered nothing useful. 

Success or failure for schools, and jails, depends on how they actually function. The formative years for TRC commissioner Murray Sinclair, MMIW commissioner Marion Buller and Canada’s Senators enabled them for rewarding employment in the high-tech economy. So why don’t they demand what they had for Indigenous youth and prison inmates? With good reason, Maclean’s magazine wrote of the divide, “Canada has a bigger race problem than America.”

By contrast, in conjunction with a ten-year re-housing program, Singapore’s schools did the heavy lifting for disadvantaged Malays. And Norway and Holland rehabilitate prison inmates by educating and training them, and treating them decently. Both the cost and the recidivism rate are lower than in Canada. The great Irish writer Brendan Behan was in reform school, Borstal, from the age of 16 to 19. Intensive schooling there helped to enable his success.

When the minister in charge of prisons in England, Winston Churchill wrote: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” 

For Indigenous citizens, Canada fails Churchill’s test.