When I was 17 years old I spent my first time in a penitentiary. Ok, despite my wild and crazy past, I actually wasn’t a prisoner. I was participating in a debating tournament, representing my Winnipeg high school, Westwood Collegiate. The host of the tournament was the Headingly Penitentiary Toastmasters Club and believe it or not we were debating whether capital punishment should be abolished.
That was my first glance at the inside of a prison and this very white, very middle class and very straight-laced young man got an eye-opener. When the audience of prisoners filled the bleachers of the prison’s gym, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them were Indians (my terminology then, and pretty much the terminology for these inmates back then too). I remember it as if it was yesterday because even with my naïve and very conservative views, the racial make-up of this place slapped me in the face…and this week, the image came back to me.
I’m not sure how much attention this B.C. case received across Canada, but it involves a Vancouver bus driver, Charles Dixon, who was viciously attacked while driving his bus late at night. His attacker, Del Louie, is a 22 year old aboriginal man with a criminal record, including a previous assault on another bus driver. The punch came out of nowhere with the damage to Dixon severe. He’s been off work for almost 14 months while undergoing three surgeries trying to repair among other things, the broken bones to his face – he has a plate and four screws in his face to keep it together.
Last Tuesday, provincial court judge Karen Walker gave Louie a conditional sentence of 14 months to be served in a rehab residence, 200 hours of community service and two years’ probation. In other words, no jail.
While we might immediately jump to the conclusion of judges making up their own laws, the fact is parliament, years ago, amended the criminal code with the following:
718.2(e) “all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders."
Canada’s Supreme Court addressed this provision in a ruling in 1999, requiring judges to consider aboriginal heritage and then on March 23, 2012 (less than three weeks ago), they addressed it again. At both times, the court was clear and emphatic that with so many Aboriginal Canadians in jail, trial judges must look for alternatives to prison. This is what they said in March:
“When sentencing an Aboriginal offender, courts must take judicial notice of such matters as the history of colonialism, displacement, and residential schools and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, and of course higher levels of incarceration for Aboriginal peoples.” (If you want horrible evidence of what Aboriginal Canadidans are facing, ready Andre Picard's article this week found here)
Now, if you’re Charles Dixon, who may never be the same again, I bet you could care less about the upbringing of your attacker. And if I were in his shoes, I’d feel the same way. In fact, with the information I have thus far on this case, my first reaction is that the judge didn't get it right, especially with Louie's previous convictions. But that’s easy for me to say – I’m not the judge, I wasn’t there for a nano-second of the case and I only know what’s reported in the media.
But here’s the thing…if we want “fairer” justice, with less consideration for the heritage of offenders, then we’ve got to be willing to make the changes today that will prevent the next generation of Aboriginal Canadians from falling into the trap of bad treatment and hopelessness. And when we think it’s too big for any of us to have that kind of impact, here are three simple suggestions that can help, even in a small way:
• Hire more Aboriginal Canadians. With so many lacking certain skills and education, it might not seem easy. But there are many who do have the skills and others will learn. Canadian companies who persist with programs to train and hire Aboriginal Canadians (even with set-backs) have found the results rewarding and realize if they’re not part of the solution, they end up being part of the problem.
• Be nice at work. Come on! Really? That’s it Stephen? Well, no, it’s not it, but boy does being nice help, especially when I hear the horror stories from a number of aboriginal employees. In other words, don’t allow harassment or negative comments of any kind. And if we want to learn more about someone's heritage, language or even tax policy, we have to be respectful and not just find a way to grand stand or ridicule. People will share a lot if we’re sincere in our asking.
• Don’t fight government policies trying to help. It’s all too easy to take a knee-jerk reaction when something has gone wrong and there’s a banner headline. Or it’s easy to say, “we’ve paid enough” in our taxes or programs for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Canadians. I’m not smart enough to know what it’s going to take to truly help our aboriginal population, but I’m smart enough to know it’s going to take a long, long, ,long time and a lot more money than we’re spending now. We still have the right to question government policies, ensuring they are worthwhile and effective, but let’s give sober thoughts as opposed to reactionary responses.
Oh, and while you're at it, do fight the government when they make bad decisions. Andre Picard's article in the Globe and Mail this week illustrates that point. He wrote about how our federal government cut funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization...and they announced it late Thursday night, just before the East long weekend (when they don't want people to know). Find the full article here.
Just so you know, after all these years, if I went back to Headingly Penitentiary, I bet I’d see the same make-up of men on those bleachers as I did when I was 17. And that’s sad.
Winner of last skill testing question: Lori Hunter from Winnipeg was the first person to give the correct answer that the constitution of South Africa was signed in Sharpeville, South Africa on December 10, 1996 by President Nelson Mandella. Lori received a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work.
Today's skill testing question: On April 17, 2012 we will celebrate 30 years of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The deal to patriate the constitution and include the Charter came about because of a controversial meeting in a kitchen in 1981. The first person who can tell me the names of the people in that kitchen will win a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work.
This blog: http://www.humanrightseachday.com/
My website: http://www.stephenhammond.ca
My Podcast: Type in “HumanRightsaDay” to the iTunes store and listen to each day's event from my book, Steps in the Rights Direction, or just click here.
My Twitter: http://twitter.com/Rightstoday (each day has historical human rights info)
Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP, is a lawyer-turned professional speaker. He’s written two books, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world. Both can be purchased on his website www.StephenHammond.ca
copyright - Stephen Hammond - Jailing Indians