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Letter addressed to Jennifer Oades, Chairperson of the Parole Board of Canada on Elder-Assisted Hearings for Non-Indigenous offender(s)

 

April 19, 2021

 

Ms. Jennifer Oades, Chairperson                                                                                              
Parole Board of Canada    
410 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa, ON K1A 0R1

Re: Elder-Assisted Hearings for Non-Indigenous offender(s)

Dear Ms. Oades,

I hope you are keeping well.  I am writing to you, as Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, regarding a complaint brought forward to my Office. The registered victims’ complaint concerns a non-Indigenous offender appropriating and insensitively following Indigenous traditions and way of life while serving a federal sentence for the murder of an Indigenous woman, as well as the family’s negative and re-traumatizing experiences attending an Elder-Assisted Hearing (EAH).

The family shared with my Office that upon their arrival at the offender’s first parole hearing in 2016, they were shocked and dismayed to find out that it would be Elder-Assisted. The victims expressed to my Office that they felt outraged and offended by this because the offender, a non-Indigenous man, was convicted of the brutal murder of their loved one, an Indigenous woman. They reported feeling re-traumatized by this situation, seeing it as an act of cultural appropriation and a colonial gesture demonstrating white privilege, entitlement, and an appalling lack of empathy and integrity. They feel the non-Indigenous person who has already inflicted unimaginable pain and grief to the victim’s family, should not be allowed to exploit and co-opt Indigenous customs and principles; Indigenous culture is not meant to assuage guilt, provide spectacle, or be used as an accessory to a person’s culpability. This family has also noted that they were further distressed to learn that despite being Indigenous themselves, they were not provided an opportunity to have an Elder present to assist and support their family. Further, the family explained that the way the hearing was set up was not in line with their own cultural beliefs and teachings, creating further barriers to their ability to meaningfully participate in the hearing.

The copy of the decision from the Parole Board of Canada’s (PBC) Decision Registry in this case actually shows that the Board Members stopped the hearing from proceeding when they learned that the victims were very distressed by the dynamic, continuing the hearing as a regular hearing, rather than an Elder-Assisted one. The victims were informed that the offender would have a right to appeal this decision and ask for a new hearing. In contrast, victims do not have a right to contest or appeal decisions to allow EAH for non-Indigenous offenders, despite the emotional trauma they may suffer as a result. I recommend that PBC develop a clear policy for Board members to address and respond consistently to situations where victims contest the hearing format on grounds of Indigenous cultural identity or heritage.

The role of the PBC Elder/Cultural Advisor is to provide Parole Board members with information about the specific culture and traditions of Indigenous communities, and about Indigenous cultures, experiences and traditions in general. The Elder may also offer wisdom and guidance to the offender during the hearing; however, the Elder is not involved in making the decision. The family in this case was not informed of the hearing format in advance, nor were they informed of the Elder’s role in advance of the hearing. There is a strong need for PBC to take a victim-centred, trauma-informed approach to ensure that victims can prepare for what to expect and meaningfully participate in EAH. Victims have rights to information and participation under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) and it is fair that they be provided information in advance about the format of the hearing and what participating will look like.

As such, to address concerns raised by victims in EAH, I further recommend the following:

According to PBC documents, ‘‘an Elder-Assisted Hearing is a culturally responsive hearing process for First Nation, Métis and Inuit offenders that takes into account the uniqueness of Indigenous culture and heritage’’ and thus this hearing process should be reserved for Indigenous Peoples first and foremost. Indigenous victims’ families feel that their culture should not be permitted to be coopted by non-Indigenous offenders, as this amounts to additional experiences of systemic violence and cultural genocide similar to what was afflicted by the Residential School System, the 60s Scoop, and the ongoing MMIWG crisis.

Amend PBC policy to require Indigenous offenders to request an EAH process at the time of their application for a hearing.

Amend PBC policy to ensure victims are notified, at minimum, 30 days in advance of an EAH and provided with clear information about the process, so that victims are not blindsided by the format of a hearing when they arrive for it.

Amend PBC policy to provide registered victims, who identify as Indigenous, with culturally appropriate supports such as an Elder so that victims feel safe and culturally supported to participate. As recognized and supported by the MMIWG Calls for Justice – which the provincial and federal governments have committed to implementing in their forthcoming National Action Plan – the family members and loved ones of victims must have their cultural, emotional, and spiritual needs respected, and have continual access to ongoing programs, resources, and supports that are culturally competent and trauma-informed.

Given that the offender in this case is approaching eligibility to apply for another hearing, the family is concerned that they, and other victims, will face these same issues with respect to the EAH process. As such, I look forward to your timely response on this matter, and welcome the opportunity to work together to ensure victims’ rights are respected.

Sincerely,

 

Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime