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Northwest Territories - Public Safety

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Statement made on 16 November 2011 by Senator Nick Sibbeston

Hon. Nick G. Sibbeston:

Honourable senators, the omnibus crime bill will soon be before us. This bill brings together a number of previous bills, most of which have not been well debated. The thing they have in common is that they will put more people in jail for longer periods of time.

I understand this legislation is a reaction — some say an overreaction — to a perceived increase in crime, especially by young people. I will let others debate whether this increase is real or imagined.

However, it has long been my impression that federal legislation is designed to deal with problems in our large cities. It takes little account of the realities of life in places like the Northwest Territories.

In the North, our problems are not criminal but social. Many communities have unemployment rates well over 60 per cent. Houses are overcrowded. Young people have little to do. Most crime is driven by despair and fuelled by alcohol.

It is well known that Aboriginal people are badly overrepresented in our prisons. In the Northwest Territories, in 2008 and 2009, they represented 88 per cent of the jail population. Mandatory minimums and the restrictions on the use of conditional sentences will only make this worse.

For example, theft over $5,000 will no longer be subject to conditional sentences. A teenager who "borrows" his uncle's Ski-Doo without permission will wind up in jail.

Changes to the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to shift away from rehabilitation and toward denunciation and punishment will send young people out of their communities and away from their families to correctional centres, where they will be fully immersed in a criminal culture. I cannot imagine how that is going to make our communities safer.

These changes will increase the number of people who go to northern jails and will keep them there longer. Institutions that are now focused on substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation and education in a safe environment will increasingly resemble southern prisons where criminals are warehoused in overcrowded conditions and where violence and danger are a way of life for both inmates and staff.

Increased use of prison time will be tremendously expensive. Territorial governments will need to redirect scarce resources, used to improve the lot of all northerners, to building and expanding correctional institutions. Because many federal prisoners are kept in northern institutions so that they can have some contact with their families and culture, the strain will be even greater.

More severe prison sentences will certainly lead to fewer guilty pleas or plea bargains. There will be more trials and appeals, straining the courts and the overburdened legal aid system. The federal government has made it fairly clear that they have no intention of paying their fair share of these increased costs.

As I have often said, I do not claim to understand the problems of Southern Canada or the responses of the government to them. I do understand the North. I will do everything I can to get the federal government to accommodate our special interests.

Just as I always opposed the gun registry because it was bad for the North, so too will I oppose this imposition of southern approaches to law and order on the North.

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