ALBERTA – “There's not a full understanding, and when something's not fully understood, people would make the assumption of what it is.”
Ashley Prairie Chicken made those comments to Lethbridge News Now, addressing the heart of the issue that prompted our newsroom to reach out to him.
Prairie Chicken is a Gladue report writer. He meets with Indigenous offenders following a criminal conviction and works with them to identify some of the factors that led them to where they are now, and how they can begin to move forward. He then prepares a report that is presented to the court, the Crown prosecutor and the defence, which provides insights that can be used in sentencing and rehabilitation.
Increasingly it seems, social media comments expressing confusion, frustration or anger – sometimes all three at the same time – are being posted in response to LNN stories that involve Indigenous suspects or offenders, especially when there is a reference made to a Gladue report being ordered for that individual. For that reason, we decided to take a detailed look at Gladue sentencing principles in two parts, the first of which you are reading now.
While our next story (coming Tuesday) will focus on how those principles are used in the courtroom and compare to those considered for non-Indigenous individuals, our starting point will be on how they impact offenders before a sentence is even imposed.
Before we get into that though, a quick look at the history of Gladue.
An amendment to the Criminal Code in 1996 paved the way for Gladue, by stating that all available sanctions other than imprisonment should be considered for all offenders. It also specifically noted the importance of taking Aboriginal offenders circumstances into account.
A Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999 took that a step further in the case of R. v. Gladue, in which the Court found issues of systemic racism and an overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in Canadian correctional institutions. As a result, they made it incumbent on judges to consider the unique and systemic background factors that may have contributed to the individual appearing before the court, as well as sentencing options that may be appropriate for the offender based on their Aboriginal heritage.
That was revisited and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of R. v. Ipeelee in 2012.
Developing a Gladue report
Before becoming a Gladue report writer, Prairie Chicken helped people in traditional ways, saying he himself has had to overcome personal traumas due to inter-generational impacts. When he was approached about a Gladue pilot program roughly four years ago, he called it a natural fit.
“I’m not here to get you out of jail, I’m here to help you with your story… to help you understand where you may have gone wrong with your crime,” says Prairie Chicken, explaining how he typically begins an interview with an offender.
“Here's the puzzle and I'm going to help you put it together, and once you see the picture you're not going to be happy with the picture and you're going to want to change it.”
After being connected with an individual following a conviction, Prairie Chicken meets them and will often go over the list of questions he will be asking them, ensuring they understand the purpose of the report and how inter-generational impacts may be playing a part in their life. He acknowledged that in some cases, he will share a little bit about his own struggles in an effort to get them to open up.
“Sometimes speaking about things they haven't spoken about in a long time, it's very difficult, but at the end of the day you'll feel better about it, because that's the journey of beginning that healing.”
A look into an offender’s past will examine any connections to residential schools, child welfare removal, domestic violence and abuse, and any physical, mental health or substance abuse issues. Importantly, it also looks into the history of their family and community as well.
“Everybody isn't born evil and wants to do bad things. It's something that they're taught and something that they go through in life,” said Prairie Chicken. “Sometimes, even the worst person you can look at and say, 'man, you are an evil person,' sometimes we forget the human side of life and what a person's gone through.”
“Identifying those factors really shows a great deal of the way they live today,” he continued. “If they were neglected, then a part of that growing up would possibly be looking for attention from others. And, in a lot of cases, if you're looking at gang activity with any client, then it's because there was a lot of neglect, or there was Child and Family Services involved and they weren't connected with their families, so they're looking for a connection.”
Putting the information to use
While a report based on that information then goes to the court – along with options that are available for community-based programs or services for the judge to consider in sentencing – Prairie Chicken says it gives the offender a chance to deal with their issues on their own, noting that he will try to give them any references to support agencies that can help them.
He stated that acceptance on the part of the offender is key, as telling them what to do generally results in defensiveness.
“Before we start the report, a lot of them – if it's a substance abuse charge – they say, 'No, I don't need treatment.' Right off the hop, in their body language, their guard is up,” said Prairie Chicken. “By the end of the report, they're like, 'You know what, I'm going to call a few treatment centres and I'm going to see what I need to do.' It's not because they're court-ordered or anything, it's just that awareness.”
As for some of the options provided to the court, Prairie Chicken said that in addition to counselling and treatment programs like Addiction and Mental Health, cultural elements are crucial to helping Aboriginal offenders change their lives, especially for young Indigenous people.
“Being of Aboriginal decent myself, I realized the importance of our history, and that's what helped me to get to where I am in my life – our traditions, our ceremony and our history. It makes me, as an Aboriginal man, proud of who I am and what I can accomplish in this world, even though there are discriminating factors in life, and how to overcome those in a positive manner.
“Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, once they can identify with a part of who they are – their history, their family history, their cultural history, traditional… it brings them closer to identifying with who they are.”
Prairie Chicken stressed that a Gladue report doesn’t mean a free pass for an offender, noting that a lot of them still end up spending time in custody as part of their sentence.
What it does, he says, is give them the supports and insights they need to make meaningful change in their lives.
“It's not about saving them but helping them to understand to save themselves,” he said, later adding, “They may be able to be the first person in their generation, in their family, to break that cycle and start to live a happy life with their children moving forward.”
As the interview came to a close, Prairie Chicken wanted to note that like the acceptance he hopes his clients will find, this too, is a first step on the road to repairing generations of damage.
“It all dates back to contact and it all dates back to the residential school treatment… I mean, 400 years of genocide and pain and suffering for a people. This is one of those things you can get to maybe move forward, and it's not much at this point.
“I'll take it,” Prairie Chicken then added. “If it's even just a glimmer of hope and light, I'll take it.”
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