Speech of the Ombudsperson - Special report on detention conditions in Nunavik

  • February 18, 2016

(The following is a translation of the original speech written and delivered in French.)

A few months ago, some disturbing information about detention conditions in Nunavik was brought to my attention. This information contradicts the Ministère de la Sécurité publique’s reports on the safe custody of detainees incarcerated in the territory of Québec and its compliance with standards and the statute in that respect. Given this situation, I decided to conduct an investigation into these conditions.

For this Northern Québec territory, the Department delegated some of its responsibilities to the Kativik Regional Government by means of an agreement. The Québec Ombudsman has no jurisdiction regarding the Kativik Regional Government, but the Ministère de la Sécurité publique remains responsible for ensuring that the detainees under its responsibility are treated in accordance with the applicable Act and standards.

Detention conditions

The investigation showed that deplorable detention conditions are tolerated in Nunavik, conditions that are below even the lowest acceptable standards and that are a serious violation of rights, including the right to dignity. Among the conditions witnessed especially, but not only, in Puvirnituq, a hub of the administration of justice in Hudson Bay, were:

  • A cell occupancy rate that is too high (as many as seven people may be kept in a cell meant to hold one or two detainees);
  • The proximity of detainees with incompatible profiles (for example, people at risk for suicide and intoxicated detainees);
  • General filthiness in places of detention, limited access to water and obsolete, defective or insufficient equipment;
  • Sanitation facilities that do not provide detainees with any privacy (in some cases, surveillance cameras even make it possible to see detainees using these facilities);
  • Housekeeping and laundry services that are often deficient, if there are any at all;
  • Uncovered mattresses placed directly on the ground and that sometimes serve as both a table and a bed for detainees;
  • Detainees confined to their cell 24 hours a day; this is the only place in Québec where this happens.

Because there is no correctional facility in Nunavik, when a judge orders the incarceration of a person who lives in one of the 14 Northern villages, he or she is transferred to one of the 20 facilities south of the 49th parallel.

We saw that once you leave Nunavik, detention conditions are not adapted to Inuit reality. First of all, there is a language barrier. Not a single Québec correctional officer is Inuit in origin or speaks Inuktitut, apart from a very few exceptions. This means that it is very difficult for Inuit detainees to understand instructions, express their needs and assert their rights which, truth be told, they are not very familiar with in general. Due to the distances involved, most of them are deprived of family visits even though this contact is an important factor in their social reintegration. However, I am satisfied to see that programs have been developed in the three main correctional facilities in Québec (Amos, Saint-Jérôme and Maison Tanguay) that take Inuit detainees.

So that the detention conditions for every Inuit incarcerated, no exceptions, comply with established standards and requirements, I have made 19 recommendations to the Ministère de la Sécurité publique. Their purpose is to significantly improve detention conditions for Nunavik Inuit at reasonable cost.

* * * 

Originally, the investigation was supposed to cover detention conditions only, but we quickly realized that they were but one component of the systemic problems related to the administration of justice in Nunavik. As a result, the investigation was broadened to include crime prevention issues and conditions.

Administration of justice

In terms of the administration of justice, the Itinerant Court, usually presided by a Court of Québec judge, travels to Nunavik. Before being heard by the Court as part of their trial, many Inuit offenders must travel to the Amos courthouse, most of the time for their bail hearing. Eventually they return north for their Itinerant Court trial.

Transporting offenders between Nunavik and Abitibi is daunting—lengthy trips, sometimes lasting days because of the numerous stops. Mostly because of these delays, the average time that Nunavik Inuit spend in preventive custody has increased by eight days in five years and is 18 days longer than that of the rest of the prison population.

The administrative costs related to these transfers are hefty; in 2014-2015, the bill for Nunavimmiut transport and custody alone was over $6.5 million (and this figure does not include Itinerant Court costs and certain expenses which the Department does not factor in).

Lack of initiative in implementing solutions at the correctional level

And yet, there are known and feasible solutions. Unfortunately, they have been slow in coming. The three main ones are:

  • creation of an air link between Abitibi and  Nunavik;
  • grouping of Inuit detainees south of the 49th parallel; 
  • and greater use of remote hearings through videoconferencing.

Crime prevention

One finding stands out: Inuit are over-represented in the justice and correctional systems. In recent years, over-representation has risen dramatically and part of the problem has been the scarcity of crime prevention resources, especially for the treatment of substance abuse in Nunavik. It has become obvious that, singly, the justice system cannot lead to crime reduction in Nunavik. Other forms of intervention are required in order to properly solve the complex set of social problems that affect Nunavimmiut and that are behind most Itinerant Court cases.

During the investigation we conducted, we saw that Inuit found guilty and transferred “South” to serve their sentences do not always grasp the intricacies of their case or of the legalese used. The relative lack of attempt to make legal principles understandable to laypeople was striking during the Itinerant Court sessions we attended. Not to mention that indictments and other legal documents are not translated into Inuktitut.

Without trivializing—in fact, quite the opposite—the sizable efforts of the Ministère de la Justice and the judiciary to tailor the administration of justice to Northern reality and needs, alternatives to Court action should focus on the root of the problem by zeroing in on the origin of crimes and on crime prevention.


In 2007, instead of building a correctional facility, the Government of Québec, the Makivik Corporation and the Kativik Regional Government agreed to create the Ungaluk Program. The amounts released within the framework of this Program ($10 million per year indexed over a 22-year period, for a total of $315 million) were earmarked to create programs to prevent and fight crime, promote health and safety within the communities, provide assistance for crime victims and improve correctional services to Inuit.

The lack of concerted action by the authorities involved—and especially the Ministère de la Sécurité publique, the Ministère de la Justice, and local parties (Kativik Regional Government and Makivik Corporation)—has served to exacerbate Inuit social problems and, as a result, perpetuate stereotypes about Inuit.

I have noted that the participation of government players and the Inuit community in the Ungaluk Program has been very modest. Since solutions have been identified and funding is for the most part available, I recommend rigorous planning and dynamic and concerted action in the short term. Heightened motivation for implementing the Program adequately must be generated.

In particular, the top priority must be to consolidate justice committees, improve the slate of psychosocial, rehabilitation and addiction treatment services, and adapt social reintegration programs. The introduction of a court program for the treatment of substance abuse consistent with the context in Nunavik is an avenue to be considered  in this day and age.

I have made seven recommendations aimed at keeping cases out of court and at fostering social progress.

This report by the Québec Ombudsman was tabled in the National Assembly so that MNAs can be made aware of this situation and gauge which direction it is taking. Over-reliance on the courts and the incarceration that stems from it will not solve social problems. More has to be done for social progress in Nunavik.