Manitoba has a prison problem.
It isn’t just that Manitoba imprisons its citizens at nearly three times the Canadian average.
And it isn’t just that 60 per cent of those prisoners are legally innocent, in prison awaiting trial.
Nor is it simply that 70 per cent of people in Manitoba prisons are indigenous, a number more indicative of serious systemic racism in Manitoba than anything else.
Although each of those numbers is concerning on their own, confronting the prison problem became unavoidable when we learned that in 2016, seven people have died while in custody in Manitoba. Five of those were inmates at the Winnipeg Remand Centre.
The deaths in state custody of Hollie Hall, Errol Greene, Robert McAdam, Russell Spence and three others whose names we do not yet know, are all tragedies. Each of these people relied on the government and were under the complete control of the government. Their medicine was dispensed (or not) according to government policies. They were given emergency medical treatment (or not) according to government policies. They were allowed to leave their cell (or not) according to government policies.
The government must be held accountable for their deaths.
Most people don’t like thinking about prisons or prison inmates. Even for people who think people in prison "deserve it," the idea of another person, stuck in a too-small room, at the mercy of the state and with none of the freedoms Canadians are used to, is disturbing. That phenomenon reared its ugly head last week when Canadians learned about Adam Capay’s four-year stay in solitary confinement.
There was outrage, sure. But did the majority of Canadians really address the fact that a 20-something Ontario man, legally innocent, had been alone in a box for four years, with artificial lights on 24 hours a day?
The problem is there are too many problems.
In our era of "reconciliation," how do we address the fact that a significant majority of people in our prisons are indigenous?
When the justice system talks about "access to justice" at every conference and meeting, what do we do about 60 per cent of our inmates being legally innocent?
And when the crime rate in Manitoba is on a downward trend, why are we locking up Manitobans at nearly three times the national average?
Perhaps surprisingly, given the enormity of the problems, one change that would make a profound and nearly immediate difference is quite simple: fund legal aid equitably.
Legal Aid Manitoba hasn’t had a real budget increase in more than a decade. The lawyers in private practice who represent clients who have a "legal aid certificate" haven’t had a raise in eight years. The result of that short-sighted policy of both Conservative and NDP governments is many defence lawyers, especially the more experienced ones, simply don’t work for legal aid anymore.
The systemic underfunding of legal aid had impacts on the client side as well. If you earn more than $23,000 per year, you’re not eligible for legal aid. If you earn $16,000 per year, you must reimburse legal aid for legal fees at their discounted rates. Depending on the charge, criminal trials can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 or more. Asking someone making $23,000 to spend nearly half their income (at least) on a lawyer is not reasonable and is setting the system up for the crisis in which we find ourselves today.
These cutoffs for legal aid in Manitoba haven’t been changed in a quarter of a century. That $23,000 limit, when it was set in 1990, is equivalent to $43,000 today. And that makes sense, because a person making $25,000 or $35,000 can’t afford to hire a lawyer to defend a criminal charge, despite legal aid’s cutoff.
Raising legal aid eligibility ceilings and increasing the tariff rates aren’t just a symbolic change. Both would have an immediate positive impact on the access-to-justice problem and, by extension, our incarceration problem. It is an immediate, practical solution to the immediate, pressing problem. And it could quite literally be implemented tomorrow.
However, the systemic problems require systemic solutions. To address the crisis of deaths in Manitoba’s correctional institutions, the new government must call a public inquiry empowered with an aggressive mandate to understand the systemic challenges and recommend long-term solutions.
The mandatory inquests are not enough. A public inquiry with a broad mandate and the resources it needs to address the multitude of problems that brought us to where we are today, is the only way for Manitobans to get answers and solutions.
But even that isn’t good enough. Unless we as Canadians, as Manitobans, are prepared to confront the virulent systemic racism that has taken hold in every corner of our justice system, unless we are ready to admit the colonialism that led to the residential schools and ’60s Scoop is alive and thriving today, we will in short order be right back where we started.
There cannot be reconciliation until there is justice.
There cannot be an end to colonialism until there is justice.
There will not be equality until there is justice.
And while, as it has been said, "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice," the continued persecution and colonialism faced by indigenous peoples in Canada tells us, as clear as can be, that Canadians must stand up, demand change, and, in doing so, bend the arc that much closer to justice.
Corey Shefman is a Winnipeg human rights lawyer and former president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties.