In its speech from the throne, the Trudeau government is promising to address systemic racism in Canada, acknowledging that “racism did not take a pause during the pandemic.”
Core to that promise will be long-awaited plans to let Indigenous nations run their own police forces, beef up accountability for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and reduce the over-representation of racialized people in the criminal justice system.
The changes will mean “progress,” Governor General Julie Payette read out Wednesday, and that “all Canadians must have the confidence that the justice system is there to protect them, not to harm them.”
But change may be more modest than some had hoped when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a knee at a Black Lives Matter protest in June.
As of this year, nearly 30 percent of all federal inmates are Indigenous, while nearly one in 10 are Black. Racialized people are more likely to be subjected to police use of force. Racial profiling, from policing to security classifications in prisons, is real and pervasive.
While calls have grown to defund police and prisons, the throne speech promises that “the government will take steps to ensure that the strong hand of criminal justice is used where it is needed to keep people safe, but not where it would be discriminatory or counterproductive.”
As part of its plan, Ottawa will finally move ahead on some long-promised reforms. “Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” the speech read. “That has to change.”
Ottawa first made that promise in 2015, although in the past five years it has actually stiffened maximum penalties for a slew of offences, not lowered them. This, despite calls from both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to move quickly to address the drastic over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons.
In Wednesday’s speech, the government vowed to “introduce legislation and make investments that take action to address the systemic inequities in all phases of the criminal justice system, from diversion to sentencing, from rehabilitation to records.”
It’s not clear exactly what that will look like. The government produced a 16-page report on possible changes to the justice system last year, but committed itself to no firm courses of action.
In an interview with me earlier this month, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair acknowledged that there are “structural and systemic changes within the criminal justice system that I think are appropriate and necessary.”
Blair added that we should expect “fundamental reform of the pardon system to make it more accessible to Indigenous populations, racialized people.”
The throne speech also promised that the government would move forward on “enhanced civilian oversight of our law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP.”
For years, the Trudeau government has promised actual oversight of the Canadian Border Services Agency, but it has yet to materialize. There has, meanwhile, been frustration over a lack of transparency by the RCMP civilian oversight body.
To that end, the speech also vowed to “modernize training for police and law enforcement, including addressing standards around the use of force.”
Notably, the federal government does not collect race-based data around policing, including police use of force.
Blair has said that will change. “Within the law enforcement community, they're quite keen to gather this information,” he said, adding that it would be helpful in “informing public policy decisions and providing the evidence of good public policy decisions.” He cautioned, however, that “we have to make sure that it's not collected and published and used in a way which actually harms communities.”
The speech promised “better collection of disaggregated data.”
Finally, the speech promises new legislation to allow First Nations communities to put together their own police agencies, designating them as an essential service. Blair says those police agencies will be “governed by indigenous communities and responsive to those communities.”
A big question is just how much money goes toward these strategies. An economic update is expected in the coming months.
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