Opposition parties rally behind FN inmates

Inmates at the new Whitehorse jail are asking the territory for an independent aboriginal liaison.

Inmates at the new Whitehorse jail are asking the territory for an independent aboriginal liaison.

The liaison would help inmates connect with their families, communities and traditional spirituality in efforts to make sure they don’t reoffend, said New Democratic MLA Kevin Barr.

But that’s exactly what is already happening at the new jail, said Justice Minister Mike Nixon.

There was a similar position up until 2008.

It was around that time the Corrections Act was being developed. In it, there are provisions for the government to work with Health and Social Services and individual First Nations, with the inmate’s permission, to help with the transition back into their home community, said Justice spokesman Dan Cable.

But those provisions aren’t doing enough, said Barr.

“When you look at the numbers of aboriginal inmates, it’s anywhere from 80 to upwards of 95 per cent at times,” he said. “It only makes sense to have a full-time aboriginal liaison.

“I do know that there are elders there and there’s First Nations staff. However, when you look at the ongoing recidivism rate, such a person would be able to help identify community needs on a daily basis. It’s a full-time job.”

But daily access to these kinds of services is already there for inmates, said Nixon.

At any time, the prison staff is between 10 to 15 per cent First Nation and elders make their rounds with inmates “a few times a week,” Nixon added.

“I wouldn’t want to see an area where we’re duplicating services,” he said. “The staff up there are just doing a first-class job at unrolling this programming as they’re able, as people settle in and get comfortable in the new facility.”

The programming Nixon refers to includes things like talking circles, traditional parenting classes and aboriginal crafts as well as alcohol and drug counselling.

But no program can replace a relationship developed between two people, said Barr, who has volunteered and offered aboriginal programming on contract at the old jail for the better part of the last decade.

“Relationship and building relationship is a huge part of being able to speak to the difficulties that inmates have in their lives,” he said.

“Being able to talk about overcoming those things with someone who you feel more comfortable with makes that smoother. It’s more effective. It’s easier to open those doors.”

And while there are First Nation corrections officers at the new jail, there’s more that are not, Barr noted.

But that is a challenge many law-enforcement organizations are facing, said Nixon.

The RCMP also has a hard time attracting more First Nation people to join their forces. But opening a new position isn’t going to help that, said Nixon.

The liaison’s responsibilities should not be pigeon-holed, said Barr.

The position should have a specific mandate but it could also assist with many things.

When Barr was working and volunteering at the jail, he found himself doing more than just his programming. Often, he would help elders get to their meetings with inmates and assist them in filling out what can often times be lengthy and complicated paperwork.

In other words, the liaison would support the programming that is already there to make it even stronger.

Nixon said he’d consider the request, which came jointly from Barr and Liberal MLA Darius Elias.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at roxannes@yukon-news.com