R v Turtle, 2020 ONCJ 429

The Court held that the unavailability of an intermittent sentence for on-reserve members of the Pikangikum First Nation, and those similarly situated, for mandatory minimum sentences under s 255 of the Criminal Code, breaches s 15 of the Charter. Alternative arguments under ss 7 and 12 of the Charter were dismissed. 

Indigenous Law Centre
Indigenous CaseWatch Blog

Six band members of the Pikangikum First Nation have pled guilty to a drinking and driving offense that, in their circumstances, carries with it a mandatory minimum jail sentence of not more than ninety days. Each of the accused live, together with their young children, on the First Nation Territory of Pikangikum.

The parties to these proceedings agree it would be open to each of these accused, in the normal course, to request an order of this Court allowing them to serve their sentences intermittently. The challenge for these defendants is that the Pikangikum First Nation Territory is an isolated fly in community hundreds of kilometers from the nearest district jail in the City of Kenora and it is financially and logistically prohibitive for them to travel to and from there, from weekend to weekend, at their own expense, to serve out their sentences.

Faced with this obstacle, the defendants each brought applications alleging that their inability to mitigate the effect of a mandatory jail sentence because of the practical unavailability of an intermittent sentence violates their right to equal protection under the law, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and an abuse of the court’s process. Given the common ground of these applications, the desirability of using resources efficiently and with the consent of the parties, this Court has directed these applications be heard in one joined proceeding.

The question at the heart of this joint application is whether particular Criminal Code provisions of general application have an unconstitutional impact on Pikangikum First Nation residents, their place in Canadian confederation and what it means for them to be equal under the law. The recognition that First Nations, like Pikangikum, lived in distinctive societies, that their members are described in s 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 as “peoples” who have been recognized by our highest Court as holders of community based rights, by virtue of their connection to their land, strongly suggests that the defendants, as on-reserve members of the Pikangikum First Nation, belong to a group enumerated in s 15 of the Charter, namely, a nation.

Being deprived of the opportunity to serve a jail sentence intermittently because of their status as on-reserve band members of the Pikangikum First Nation, constitutes the deprivation of a legal benefit. It also creates a distinction in law between themselves and other members of the general public. Most of the offending behavior in Pikangikum, like the offences the defendants have pled guilty to, is related to alcohol or solvent abuse. Pikangikum First Nation reserve is, and always has been, an ostensibly dry community. The effects of alcohol abuse in Pikangikum are rampant and have become devastating.

Mandatory minimum sentences under s 255 of the Criminal Code, breaches s 15 of the Charter. Any s 1 justification must fail at the minimal impairment stage of the analysis given this Court is deprived of any other sentencing options for the defendants by virtue of their facing mandatory sentences. The deleterious effects of this constitutional violation are egregious and cannot be outweighed by the salutary effect of a uniform sentencing regime (R v Sharma, 2020 ONCA 478). Alternative arguments under ss 7 and 12 of the Charter are dismissed.

Pikangikum and other Treaty #5 nations had traditional means of keeping the peace in their communities that pre-date contact with Europeans by thousands of years. Pikangikum’s integration into Canadian confederation is a textbook example of the negative effects of colonialism on an isolated hunter-gatherer society. The people of Pikangikum were a healthy, self-sufficient band of families, who, in the lifetime of the current Chief’s grandmother, became the suicide capital of the world. The legal regime the Court has been asked to consider in this application, though neutral on its face, treats the people of Treaty #5 as second-class citizens. The Government is not fulfilling its treaty obligations and young Indigenous people are taking their lives in shocking numbers.

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