Partway through my summer internship, I took a break and went canoe camping in La Vérendrye Wilderness Reserve. The first day and a half in the park was pristine: sunny, warm, calm-waters. But on the second day, just before noon, my group paddled into a plume of heavy smoke and falling ash. The haze into which we paddled, and the Northern Quebec wildfires from which they emerged, would disrupt my travel plans for rest of the summer.  What followed was a lesson in navigating the divides that tend to separate those who do human rights work and those for whom it is done.  

Paddling through the smoke in La Vérendrye

Throughout my internship, my role consisted primarily as a Gladue report writer for the Cree Nation Government’s (CNG) Justice and Correctional Services. Gladue reports are, most often, pre-sentence hearing reports that Canadian courts request when considering sentencing an offender of Indigenous background under Section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code. Generally speaking, a Gladue report will provide the details about a person’s individual, familial, and community history. Reports are laden with quotations gleaned from a series of interviews between a Gladue writer, the subject of the report, and the subject’s closest family and friends. At their best, such reports offer a human perspective on the subject’s life and relations that is too often flattened and distorted in the course of sentencing hearings, in the back-and-forth contest of oral testimony and cross-examination. Finally, reports will conclude with suggested sentencing options for the judge to consider. Ultimately, the Gladue process is intended to address the over-incarceration of Indigenous persons by compelling judges to consider alternatives to imprisonment when determining the ‘fit and proper’ sentence for Indigenous offenders.

As a Gladue writer, I would be in charge of meeting clients from the Cree communities who had been convicted of an offense, informing them of the Gladue process, and should they opt-in, carrying out the interview and report-drafting process. The plan for my internship was as follows: First, I would complete the CNG’s intensive course on Gladue writing, from the CNG office in Montreal’s Old Port; next, I would be assigned my first client for whom I would write a report, and I would travel to whichever community they were living in to carry out the Gladue process; finally,  I would return to Montreal to complete my report and to help with a handful of other projects that Justice and Corrections were working on in the Old Port Office.

As I might have expected, this best-laid plan came crashing down pretty quickly. Following my initial training phase, just as the core part of the internship was about to begin, my summer plans began to unravel. Having successfully completed my Gladue writer training, I took a break went canoe camping in La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve. The weather was pristine for the first day and a half: 30 degrees and blue skies. But on the second day, around noon, we paddled into a plume of heavy smoke and falling ash. There we would remain for the rest of our trip.  

When I returned to Montreal, ash still clinging to my hair and cloths, I read that the smoke we encountered had drifted hundreds of kilometres southwest, from the half-dozen wildfires that raged across the forests Eeyou Istchee. In the following days, the news coverage of the Northern Quebec forest fires grew exponentially, as the smoke followed us southward and enveloped much of the province, as well as Ontario and the northeastern and midwestern states. The air quality outside Montreal apartment reached record lows, just as it did in New York and elsewhere in the region.

Smog distorts the Montreal skyline.

The wildfires posed a significant problem for my internship. For my first client was based in Mistissini, the site of an uncontrolled forest fire. With the fire threatening to take out the community’s electrical grid, and the possibility of evacuation looming, my supervisor and I decided to cancel my travel plans and to implement plan B: I would complete phase two of my internship from the office in Montreal, conducting my interview over the phone. With the benefit of hindsight, this was the right call, as the community was evacuated just days after I would have arrived in Mistissini. Nevertheless, the decision made my work more difficult, compounding the challenges I already faced as a non-Indigenous Gladue writer.

My client, I quickly realized, had understandable reasons not to trust me. For one, his counsel seemed to have told him little to nothing about the Gladue process. So, for example, when I first called him, he did not understand how it was different from the regular pre-sentencing report that was already being prepared by his probation officer. I explained Gladue as best I could. But, by the sound of it, his lawyer was scarcely available to corroborate what I was telling him. The most I could do was to repeat my explanation of Gladue in different terms, and to send him other resources that explained the process. But I was an outsider. I could not speak Cree; I was not from the North, and I knew little about what he called ‘life in the bush’ — only what I had learned in the first few weeks of working with the CNG, from a few conversations with elders, and with a couple of months of reading prior to the internship.

It helped that my client and I shared a love of fishing. On several occasions, we discussed different techniques for landing Brook Trout. And this led to something of a breakthrough: the client said that he was on board with the Gladue process, at least as I had described it. But he was still reluctant to sign the consent forms that would allow us to move forward. After all, the last time a stranger contacted him and asked him to sign a series of forms was when he first learned of the charges against him, and, in the process, he felt he had been tricked into cooperating in the process against his own interests. Understandably, he feared that the same would happen again, and that the details in the report would be used against him at his hearing.

Over the course of those initial talks, the client made it clear that he needed some assurances before he would sign the consent forms that would allow us to begin the process. Thus, before deciding to abandon my trip to Mistissini, I told my client that I would be able to travel to Mistissini where we could sit down for a face-to-face, read over the various consent forms that would protect his information, and maybe even fish trout together.  Needless to say, this arrangement fell through along with my plans to visit Mistissini.

Eventually, after several weeks of phone calls, my client agreed to sign the consent forms. I must admit, it is not entirely clear to me what finally led to the break-through. Perhaps it was his conversation with his wife, to whom I had spoken several times. Perhaps he just needed time to mull it over. Or maybe our conversations about fishing really did make the difference.  In any event, this process which took the better part of a few weeks left me with nearer understanding of the human relationship between those who work within Canadian institutions of criminal justice and those who are subject to its coercive apparatus and the kinds of divides that they face when asked to work alongside one another.