Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-83, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and another Act and to speak to the report.
I would first like to congratulate the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for the strength, vigour and courage with which they defended the key amendments that must be made to this well-intentioned but imperfect bill.
This evening, I would like to express my support for these amendments, especially those that require an assessment of the mental health of inmates placed in segregation and a judicial review of cases of long-term segregation. I also want to remind senators that because the correctional system is unable to manage segregation in a humane manner, people suffer.
I would like to tell you the story of Eddie Snowshoe.
In my previous life as a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, I covered Eddie Snowshoe’s story for the paper. I’ve written about a lot of terrible incidents in my career as a journalist, but Eddie’s story haunts me in a way few others have.
Eddie was a member of the Tetlit Gwich’in First Nation in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, one of the Peel River people. He was a troubled young man, though not a hardened criminal.
On March 1, 2007, armed with a 22-calibre rifle, Eddie robbed a young taxi driver in Inuvik, injuring the driver. He stole $45. Just 15 minutes later, he surrendered himself to police. He made a full confession.
“It was either that or kill myself,” Snowshoe told police when he was arrested. “I was prepared to get caught. My life was going nowhere.”
Snowshoe was sentenced to almost five and a half years in prison, federal time. Because there was no federal prison near Fort McPherson or Inuvik, the youth was sent to Stony Mountain, a medium-security institution in Winnipeg, more than 4,000 kilometres away. It was the first time he had ever left the High Arctic.
Far, far from home, culturally isolated, without any contact with family or friends, he attempted suicide three times: in 2007, not long after he was first incarcerated; then again in 2008; and again in 2009. In early 2010, after a major depressive episode, there was another serious incident of self-harm. Eddie Snowshoe was placed on suicide watch.
A few weeks after that, he fashioned some kind of makeshift “knife” — something he made out of the lining of a juice box. He didn’t hurt anyone with it nor threaten anyone with it. He brandished it in what a report later referred to as an “incident.” As a result, he was placed in segregation, what is colloquially known as solitary confinement, for 134 consecutive days — 134 consecutive days for a mentally ill young man with a well-documented history of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
A public fatality inquiry later found that the compulsory, legally mandated reviews of Snowshoe’s continued segregation were never carried out. He was simply locked up, indefinitely.
It would seem obvious to most of us here, I suspect, that what Eddie Snowshoe needed was medical treatment and psychiatric care. He needed human contact, not tortuous isolation. Yet, somehow, Eddie survived those first 134 days.
And then? Well, then, honourable senators, on July 15, 2010, Eddie Snowshoe was transferred to Edmonton’s maximum-security prison.
The very next day, on July 16, Eddie applied, in writing, to be moved into the general population. The troubled young man tried his best to advocate for himself. But his application to be released from segregation was lost. The paperwork went astray and wasn’t found until months after his death.
Although a nurse examined Mr. Snowshoe when he arrived in Edmonton and noted his history of suicide attempts, there was no psychological or medical follow-up, no psychiatric assessment. Indeed, correctional officers testified at a later public fatality inquiry that they were never, ever informed about Eddie’s multiple previous efforts to kill himself.
His segregation status at the Edmonton Max was confirmed by an assistant warden, but it was on her last day of work before taking a one-year leave of absence, so she had no follow-up. On top of that, Eddie was supposed to have an assigned parole officer, but that officer was on summer vacation and never met with Eddie to hear his story.
And the result? The result is that no one — no one — in the Edmonton Max realized how long their new prisoner had already been in solitary confinement.
In his later fatality inquiry report, Alberta provincial court Judge James Wheatley summed things up this way:
Edward Christopher Snowshoe fell through the cracks of a system and no one was aware of how long he had been in segregation even though that information was readily available.
As a suicidal, mentally ill prisoner, Eddie could have been placed in a special observation cell, which would have allowed guards to monitor his condition. Indeed, such a cell was free and available at the Edmonton Max. But instead, Eddie was placed in a cell where the guards could only see him through a mail slot.
In all, Eddie Snowshoe spent 162 days in segregation, including his final 28 solitary days in Edmonton. And then, just four months before he was due for statutory release, Eddie Snowshoe hanged himself. He was 24.
Both journalists and politicians are a little too prone to overuse the word “Kafkaesque,” but I frankly can’t think of a better word to describe such fatal, careless bureaucrat bungling — a mentally ill young man whose crime, remember, was to steal $45, trapped in endless segregation — not because he was a dangerous felon but simply, literally, because no one remembered to let him out. He died not because of intentional cruelty or malice but because of institutional inertia and the institutional incompetence of our corrections system.
A wealth of studies demonstrate that long-term solitary confinement can drive even the most sane and stable person to depression and psychosis. Edward Snowshoe was already suicidal and depressive, isolated from his family, his community, his Indigenous culture. Perhaps we should be amazed that he survived 162 days.
Judge Wheatley later found Mr. Snowshoe’s history of mental illness and suicide attempts were not handled with what he called, in a dramatic case of understatement, “any degree of care or alertness.”
Eddie Snowshoe didn’t die in a Dickensian Victorian workhouse. He didn’t die in a Soviet gulag. He didn’t die in a North Korean prison camp. Exiled from his community, cut off from his family and his culture, denied essential medical care, this kid who stole $45 and surrendered to police 15 minutes later, died because we locked him up all alone in a tiny cell and just forget he was there.
Let’s not forget him now.
Let’s not forget what he went through. Let’s ensure, through the bill we are passing this month, that no one else goes through the same ordeal. Let’s ensure that the necessary controls and oversight mechanisms are in place to strengthen our correctional system.
Eddie Snowshoe’s story perfectly illustrates why the bill has to be amended. We must ensure that inmates with psychiatric problems are examined and cared for, rather than punished and placed in solitary confinement. This story also demonstrates what can happen when there is no judicial review of cases of long-term segregation, when there is no mechanism to prevent someone from languishing in a segregation cell just because their paperwork went astray.
I know the end of the month is fast approaching and we are under immense pressure to pass bills as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, that is no reason for us to forget Edward Christopher Snowshoe. Let’s take the time to pass a good bill.
Thank you. Hiy-hiy.