Unacceptable detention conditions and insufficient crime prevention in Nunavik | Protecteur du Citoyen
February 18, 2016

Unacceptable detention conditions and insufficient crime prevention in Nunavik

Québec City, February 18, 2016 – Further to an investigation in Nunavik, the Québec Ombudsman, in its capacity as Québec’s correctional watchdog, concluded that detention conditions there are substandard, that the administration of justice should take the specific characteristics of the territory into better account, and that crime prevention measures are woefully lacking.

“Inuit have the same rights and obligations as any other Québec citizen. However, the fact is that they face unacceptable unfairness when it comes to the correctional and justice system.”

This was the finding announced today by Ombudsperson Raymonde Saint-Germain at the release of a special report entitled Detention Conditions, Administration of Justice and Crime Prevention in Nunavik.

The investigation by the Québec Ombudsman

For the purpose of the investigation, the Québec Ombudsman visited three villages in Nunavik, a territory of Québec located north of the 55th parallel. Nunavik is under the authority of the Kativik Regional Government, the preferred contact of the Québec government, for which the Québec Ombudsman has no jurisdiction.

Although the investigation was aimed at determining if detention conditions respect detainees’ rights, the Québec Ombudsman was quick to see that the failings in that regard stemmed from a much broader problem that affects both the administration of justice and crime prevention. As a result, these three aspects were the subject of the Québec Ombudsman’s special report.

Inuit and Québec’s correctional system

In Nunavik, substandard detention conditions

There is not a single correctional facility in Nunavik. People who have to be detained are kept temporarily at a Kativik Regional Police Force station or in a Nunavik holding cell under the responsibility of the Direction générale des services correctionnels. There they stay until their release, if applicable, or until they are transferred to correctional facility “in the South” pending their court hearing.

In Nunavik, and more specifically, in Puvirnituq, a sort of judicial hub, the Québec Ombudsman witnessed serious violations of detainees’ rights: insufficient and unsanitary facilities; unsanitary and obsolete equipment or no equipment at all; promiscuity due to overcrowding; a prison population where detainees with incompatible profiles are thrown together; and cell confinement 24 hours a day.

Mismatch between detention conditions in “the South” and Inuit reality

Inuit transferred to any of the 20 correctional facilities south of the 49th parallel are deprived of family and community support. Many detainees are completely removed from everything they know. Also, the language barrier makes it difficult for them to assert their rights.

The Québec Ombudsman has made 19 recommendations to the Ministère de la Sécurité publique aimed at rectifying failings observed in the north and south alike:

  • Lower the occupancy rate in detention cells in Nunavik;
  • Avoid keeping detainees with incompatible profiles in close proximity;
  • Ensure supply and upkeep of basic material and that sanitary facilities are in proper working order;
  • Ensure that detention areas and bedding are always clean;
  • Ensure that food quality and quantity comply with standards;
  • Allow detainees to spend time outdoors by providing them with secure space for that purpose;
  • Ensure better protection of personal belongings;
  • Change the angle of cameras so that toilets cannot be viewed on screen;
  • Improve access to the complaint examination procedure;
  • Ensure that suicide intervention equipment is available and that the officers can use it correctly;
  • Clarify the sharing of safe-custody responsibilities between correctional service officers and officers of the Kativik Regional Police Force;
  • Overcome the language barrier.

Administration of justice in Nunavik

In Nunavik, the administration of justice is carried out through Itinerant Court, generally presided by a Court of Québec judge. Currently, this Court serves eight communities. 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.

The human consequences of transporting these offenders are considerable, notably because of delays, the extent of transfers and the challenging distances involved. In fact, up to 14 days may elapse between a person's arrest in Nunavik and arrival in Abitibi for the bail hearing. The Criminal Code prescribes a maximum wait time of three days for a bail hearing. The financial cost of transportation is also very hefty (taken singly, the annual cost of the transport and detention of offenders arrested in Nunavik is $6,556,604).

The Québec Ombudsman has made two recommendations to the Ministère de la Sécurité publique and two common recommendations to the Ministère de la Sécurité publique and the Ministère de la Justice concerning:

  • The creation of an air link between Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nunavik and the grouping of Inuit detainees in the future Amos correctional facility;
  • The adapted use of videoconferencing and new technology for court appearances.

Crime prevention

Inuit are over-represented in the justice and correctional systems, and this phenomenon is dramatically on the rise (a 239% increase over 10 years in the number of cases handled by the Itinerant Court). The lack of concerted crime-prevention initiatives, especially in treatment for substance abuse, is a contributing factor. The Québec Ombudsman considers that the development of prevention and social reintegration programs customized to the needs expressed by each of the communities is crucial to attacking the problems behind criminal behaviour.

It has made seven recommendations, some to the Ministère de la Justice and others to the Ministère de la Sécurité publique, concerning:

  • Access to information and to justice services;
  • Prevention and social reintegration;
  • Alternatives to the courts.

For several years now, various stakeholders have reflected on the problem of Inuit over-representation in the justice and correctional systems.

“Over-reliance on the courts and the resulting incarceration does nothing to solve social problems. More has to be done for social progress in Nunavik,” said the Ombudsperson.

Ms. Saint-Germain hopes that the Québec Ombudsman’s external and independent view of the situation will contribute to concrete and effective action to solve these issues  which, although complex, are not without identified and accessible solutions, as laid out in the Québec Ombudsman’s special report. 

For all findings and recommendations, see the Québec Ombudsman’s report.

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