Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press March 30, 2023
By Elizabeth Comack
In “A Tale of Two Sentences” (March 18, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press) Dean Pritchard reports on the stories of two men who were facing similar criminal charges for weapons and drug offences. Both men were being supported by Morberg House, a residential recovery centre, and by all accounts had made great strides in moving forward in their lives. When it came to sentencing, however, the judge handed the Indigenous man a federal prison sentence and gave the non-Indigenous man a conditional sentence that enabled him to remain in the community and continue working with the recovery centre.
I’m familiar with similar stories of Indigenous men who were caught up in the criminal justice system. My book, Realizing a Good Life: Men’s Pathways Out of Drugs and Crime (Fernwood Publishing, 2023), focuses on the lives of men in trouble: men who were involved in the gang life, dealing with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and spent time incarcerated. Their stories expose the challenges and barriers they encountered in trying to move forward and realize a good life.
One theme running throughout the book involved being “in the problem.” This was a phrase the men used often to describe the sense of hopelessness they experienced being so deep into drugging and drinking and feeling there was no way out. In exploring how the men got to be in the problem, the trauma that colonialism generates was evident in their stories. Sometimes that connection was direct: having parents who were survivors of the residential schools or being part of the Sixties Scoop and struggling with the identity issues that created. But colonial trauma extended to the physical and sexual abuse they encountered in foster homes, racial slurs and bullying at school, and being targeted as the “usual suspect” when regularly stopped by police. Turning to drugs and alcohol was a way to numb their pain. But that coping strategy created its own problems, not the least of which was conflicts with the law.
Some of the men did manage to get out of the problem and live in sobriety. But it became clear in speaking with them over the five years we met that living in sobriety is only a first step toward realizing a good life. Fostering relationships with others and overcoming past traumas were also important, as well as coming to realize that they do deserve a better life. As one of the men said, “I didn’t feel I deserved anything better” than being stuck in the problem and always ending up back in jail.
The degradation ceremony that is the criminal justice system plays a significant role in perpetuating that cycle. There are many rituals involved in this ceremony — from being handcuffed and restrained by police to the formalities of the courtroom to the admission practices of the prisons (strip searches, assigning an inmate number, issuing standard clothing). The same cannot be said for once prisoners serve their sentence and are released back into the community, unless you count being released with just a bus ticket (which happened twice to one of the men) as a reintegration ritual. While individuals should be held accountable when they are guilty of wrongdoing, the criminal justice system more often than not hinders rather than helps in their efforts to realize a good life.
No one realizes a good life on their own. Following an Indigenous understanding of a good life, which involves working at achieving wholeness, balance, connection, growth, and healing, requires social supports. It may sound simple, but it all comes down to care: caring for, caring about, and being cared for — exactly what Morberg House was doing for those two men that Pritchard writes about.
Pritchard’s article leaves us with the impression that the racial disparity in what happened to the two men was a matter of one judge’s sentencing decision. But the problems encountered with the criminal justice system are more far reaching.
Despite giving lip service to restorative justice as a response to crime, which would ensure that individuals take responsibility for the harms they’ve caused and be provided with the social supports they require to move out of a life of drugs and crime, the Manitoba government has been more intent on concentrating its efforts on “getting tough on crime,” including shoring up already substantial police resources. That approach only succeeds in drawing more and more people into the criminal justice net — a net that’s incredibly difficult to break out of once you’re caught up in it.
Instead, what if we took an ethic of care seriously and provided people with the social supports they need: adequate housing, food security, meaningful employment, and resources to heal from their trauma? In other words, what if we really made it possible for everyone to realize a good life?
Elizabeth Comack is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Manitoba and a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Manitoba.