Indigenous man wins human rights settlement after jail denied request to practise spirituality

Written by Bridget Yard, CBC News.

Bridget Yard, CBC News

The Department of Justice and Public Safety and its jail in Shediac have apologized to a former Indigenous inmate who was denied access to traditional native spiritual services, such as smudging.

Anthony Peter-Paul was incarcerated for 16 months, first in Saint John, then at the brand new Southeast Regional Correctional Centre in Shediac for a break-and-enter in 2011.

 

He asked to practise native spirituality, such as smudging, and the request was denied because the newly built jail couldn't "facilitate."

"It's more like just not getting back to you, or saying 'We're looking into it, we don't have the resources now, we can't facilitate you at this time,' or flat out no," said Peter-Paul.

"You want to be able to pray and help yourself and reform, so when you're released you're in a better state of mind."

Peter-Paul said he was denied the right to pray the way he was taught by his elders, so he filed a complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission.

"I was angry, not only with the people around me but with the institution, the system, and I felt I was let down by the correctional [system] in New Brunswick," said Peter-Paul.

Earlier this year, Peter-Paul received a settlement.

He was given a letter of apology, assurances the jail would stop preventing Indigenous people from having reasonable access to spiritual services, and $1,000 as general damages.

Anthony Peter-Paul can't talk about the settlement, which includes a confidentiality clause, but CBC News has obtained a copy of it.

Dan Ennis, a native elder from Tobique First Nation and former Human Rights Commission employee, who helped advocate on Peter-Paul's behalf, and has criticized the contents of the agreement.

"I thought it could have gone further,"  said Ennis, who was not involved in the agreement itself.

"Now it's a matter of us doing our own monitoring to the jail system in New Brunswick."

Under the settlement, the respondents — the Department of Public Safety and Southeast Regional Correctional Center  — have agreed to: 

  • Abide by their obligations in the Human Rights Act and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms related to religious services.
  • Provide "reasonable" access to Aboriginal spiritual services, items, and artifacts.
  • Attempt to hire more indigenous employees.
  • Recruit volunteer spiritual elders to work with inmates.

The settlement dictates that the Human Rights Commission review the correctional centre's policies to ensure they're in keeping with the Human Rights Act, and make recommendations within six months.

Ennis said he would be happy to help.

"If you can't do it at the Human Rights Commission, we'll take it upon ourselves to form an ad hoc committee to monitor it," he said.

As an elder and inmate advocate, Ennis says he has witnessed and fielded complaints about racism from "every jail in New Brunswick."

"So every jail we had some kind of issue, complaint, whatever, with the jail system in provincial jails. That is racism, of course, when you're targeting one group of people."

Anthony Peter-Paul, similarly, is "not surprised" he was blocked from performing spiritual ceremonies while incarcerated.

"They were letting in Christian ministers once or twice a week to tend to the inmates, and they had a room to 'facilitate' them to read the Bible, to do prayer ceremonies. They gave out little crosses, little handbooks. But they wouldn't have native elders coming in and spiritual elements for natives."

After his release, Peter-Paul enrolled in journalism school at St Thomas University and wrote a story for CBC New Brunswick focusing on the lack of access to spiritual services for First Nations inmates.

"It's just very negative seeing some people trying to receive help and help themselves, and a different minority group is not able to," said Peter-Paul

"It's the same issues you see outside of jail. It's systematic inside the correctional institutions. I see it as a form of racism. It's like, 'Who cares about the natives?'"

Peter-Paul is at home at Pabineau First Nation, awaiting lobster fishing season. He has completed a bachelor of arts at St. Thomas University since his incarceration.

Peter-Paul continues to practise spirituality in his home and finds comfort in it.

"I smudge, I burn some of the sacred medicines," he said.

He is unable to speak about the settlement and the outcome of his human rights complaint but said he will continue to speak on behalf of First Nations inmates.

"I would like to see elders be able to access the inmates similar to ministers coming in for spiritual needs, with an attempt to help them rehabilitate, so when they're released they're in touch with their culture, with themselves, with their spirituality, and they become a better person and don't come back to jail," he said.

While in jail, Peter-Paul was unaware of many of his rights before speaking to other inmates and to Dan Ennis, from Tobique First Nation.

All the more reason, the confidentiality clause in his settlement is, according to Ennis, "the silliest thing."

"This would be an educational thing for the general public first of all, and the Indian public, second of all, to know what they can do about protecting their rights in provincial jail," said Ennis.