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Considering culture in criminal courts

Priscilla Ferrazzi examines criminal court programs for people with mental illness in Nunavut.

Queen’s University researcher Priscilla Ferrazzi (Rehab Science ‘15) says Inuit culture is a key consideration when planning criminal court programs for people with mental illness in Nunavut. Rehabilitation-oriented criminal court programs to reduce the number of people with mental illness caught in the criminal justice system exist in many North American cities and elsewhere but not in the mainly Inuit Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut. 

Dr. Ferrazzi’s study explored whether the therapeutic aims of these resource-intensive, mainly urban court programs could be achieved in criminal courts in Nunavut’s resource constrained, culturally distinct and geographically remote communities.

Interviews conducted in the North revealed the best ways to improve court responses to people with mental illness in   Nunavut align well with the principles behind the court programs in the south. However, Dr. Ferrazzi adds, Inuit culture holds the key to understanding how these principles and their objectives should be interpreted in Arctic communities.

Priscilla Ferrazzi is working to improve mental health programs for people in Arctic communities.

The study involved interviews with more than 50 lawyers, judges, police, elders, community workers, nurses, psychiatrists and others across three communities to hear their views about what’s possible.

“In practical terms, this means anyone planning to set up a criminal court program for people with mental illness in Nunavut must make sure their plans are culturally responsive,” says Dr. Ferrazzi, who conducted the study while at Queen’s and is now on faculty  at the University of Alberta. “Any effort to simply replicate the programs of the south, or even to apply their principles as they are, will achieve the same result as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Criminal court mental health programs do three things: first, they identify people with mental illness eligible for the programs; second, they impose rehabilitation-focused treatment regimens rather than prosecution or jail; and third, they work collaboratively with community mental health service providers and others.

“But what if Inuit and Western ideas about what it means to be mentally ill are fundamentally different?” says Dr. Ferrazzi. “What if the concept of mental health rehabilitation diverges in important ways between these two cultures? And what if approaches to collaboration are not entirely aligned? These are questions raised by this research.”

“Anyone who is thinking about ways to improve how courts deal with mental illness in a territory that is 85 per cent Inuit needs to understand that the fundamental principles behind these initiatives look different in the North.”

As a follow up to her research, Dr. Ferrazzi is leading a large, two-year, collaborative research project funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and The Law Foundation of Ontario to examine the ideas she uncovered more closely. The project will explore how young Inuit men view the concept of “rehabilitation” in the criminal law context.

Dr. Ferrazzi completed this research under the supervision of Terry Krupa (School of Rehabilitation Therapy).  Financial support for this project was facilitated with the help of the late Dr. Stan Corbett (Law).  The project also benefited from the support of Diane Davies (Office of Research Services).

The research was published in Social Science and Medicine.