Indigenous Affairs not adequately managing specific claims for First Nations: Auditor General

Problems continue with specific claims and Indigenous offenders in prison.

APTN National News
Canada’s auditor general says the federal department of Indigenous Affairs is not only mismanaging specific claims for First Nations, but reforms brought in to fix the tribunal were actually barriers to resolving disputes.

Michael Ferguson released the department’s fall report Tuesday.

“These barriers included certain practices that did not encourage negotiations; cuts to funding for claims preparation and negotiation; and limited information sharing between the Department and First Nations,” said Ferguson in his report.

“We also found that the Department was aware of First Nations’ concerns about these barriers, but was unable to demonstrate that it had a formal process to gather, monitor, and respond to information and feedback about these concerns and make required improvements.”

The Specific Claims Tribunal was announced with much fanfare by then prime minister Stephen Harper and former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine in 2007 to address treaty disputes with First Nations. It was called the Justice at Last program and seen as a method of solving these disputes without the costly process of going through the courts.

But a lack of resources bogged the process down and claims began to pile up. The office had few staff and worked without a full team of negotiators.

Fast forward to 2016, the auditor general found three issues that slowed the process.

    • certain of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s practices did not encourage negotiations,
    •  funding to First Nations was arbitrary and inconsistent,
    • and information sharing between the Department and First Nations was limited.

“In collaboration with First Nations, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada should review its systems and practices to understand why the majority of claims are not settled through negotiation and to improve the resolution of claims in line with the aims of Justice at Last,” wrote Ferguson.

According to Ferguson’s report, Ottawa further complicated the process by quashing a deal to work collaboratively with the Assembly of First Nations to make the tribunal work when in 2011 the Harper government told the AFN to step aside.

In response, the department said that is changing.

“Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is currently working with the Assembly of First Nations to establish a process in which Canada will work collaboratively with First Nations to identify fair and practical measures to improve the specific claims process.”

Ferguson also found Indigenous offenders are being released from prison without supports, after serving longer sentences because less of them get paroled.

When they do finally get out they’re more often being released into the community from a maximum or medium security institution according to the latest report from the federal auditor general.

Ferguson said the same doesn’t apply to non-Indigenous offenders serving time in prisons who get day parole easier and with more support.

Ferguson’s investigation into Correctional Service of Canada found during the 2015-2016 fiscal year 740 of 1,066 Indigenous offenders were passed over for parole and served time until their statutory release date.

“This is a significantly higher rate than for non-Indigenous offenders (about 18 per cent higher), and it has persisted over several years,” Ferguson said in his report.

By serving until their statutory release they were less likely to be part of a gradual release plan, such as day-parole in a supervised halfway house with programs to help offenders return to the community on their own.

Statutory release means the offender serves the final third of their sentence in the community like someone on full parole.

And many of them are being released directly into the community walking out of a maximum or medium security prison.

Ferguson found 102 came from maximum prisons, while 483 from medium.

He also from that CSC is less likely to look at reducing their security levels before release after successfully completing a correctional program.

Ferguson also found Indigenous inmates have a difficult time accessing cultural programs while in prison, and because of their security level they can’t be moved to one of nine healing lodges across the country. The lodges operate at minimum security, but 80 per cent of Indigenous inmates are in medium or maximum.

That’s leaving the lodges with beds empty as they operate at about 74 per cent capacity.

“CSC had not assessed the feasibility of expanding Healing Lodges to medium-security for men or to other regions,” Ferguson said.

He said CSC couldn’t document how offenders’ taking part in culturally specific programs contributed to their “successful” release into the community.

“As well, staff was not provided with sufficient guidance or training on how to apply Aboriginal social history factors in case management decisions,” he said.

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