Yellowknifer editorial: really bad deja vu

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The issue: 11 days in cells
We say: Council questioned wrong person

Another woman paid the price for the Department of Justice’s inability or unwillingness to provide a minimum level of service to women in custody awaiting court hearings over the holidays.

Remanded by a judge into custody with four court appearances scheduled in Yellowknife within a few days of each other, she ended up staying 11 straight days and nights in the spartan temporary holding cells at the RCMP detachment during the last week of December and first of January.

The possibility of such a stay remains a fate reserved for females in custody, since men are sent to the North Slave Correctional Complex here in Yellowknife, which has larger cells, creature comforts like windows and pillows, not to mention access to the outdoors, something more palatable than a TV dinner to eat and lights that turn off at night.

What it didn’t have at the end of the year was cells for female prisoners, all four of which were already occupied. The closest vacant ones were at the women’s facility in Fort Smith, 800 kilometres away.

That’s a long way to go and this is far from the first time it’s happened. A woman spent 12 days at the detachment in 2016, another spent five days there in 2015 and a third spent 17 days in police cells in Yellowknife and Inuvik in 2008.

A corrections spokesperson said after the March 2016 incident, which involved a woman just 19 years old, that it didn’t “make sense” to fly a person to Smith and back when they have multiple court dates close together in Yellowknife.

Here’s something else that doesn’t make sense.

When questioned by city councillors last week, Insp. Laporte said police would continue to work with partners to “find solutions,” but said it was likely to happen again. That’s fine. But it was a bit of silly political theatre to be asking Laporte what he was going to do about a situation he had no hand in creating. 

This latest case could be the one that shows enough of a pattern of discrimination in the form of complacency and neglect against women charged with crimes to be considered a human rights violation, but it’s not the RCMP who would be dragged into court. The police don’t decide who is remanded to custody or where, and those holding cells are meant for stays of one or two nights at most.

The GNWT treats male and female inmates differently, and there’s a clear case history in Canada illustrating what happens when you fail to treat both genders equally. This isn’t a scientific statement, but you would probably be hard pressed to find a human rights decision that awarded less in financial compensation than the cost of a couple of plane tickets.

The Justice department has had years to address this gap in capacity.

Minister Caroline Wawzonek spent many of those years as a defence lawyer; it’s unlikely there is anyone in the territory better suited or positioned to finally take action. 

She should have been the one taking questions in city council chambers, and how she handles this is likely to leave a lasting mark on her fledgling political legacy.

 

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