By Peter OlfertPresidentManitoba Government and General Employees' Union
It is entirely appropriate that the Government of Manitoba is following through on a recommendation of the 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) that would enable more culturally appropriate probation services to be delivered to Manitoba's First Nations and Métis peoples.
So, too, is the province's insistence that all stakeholders involved in the devolution of probation services to these new aboriginal agencies be at the table during the critical implementation process. This was the reasoning behind the province's decision to include the union representing Manitoba's probation officers, the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU), during the devolution implementation stage.
At MGEU, we also believe that for reasons of public safety, the development of a devolution framework requires the best possible due diligence that can be brought to the table, and therefore must include front-line probation officers at the planning level. As noted by Greg Graceffo, assistant deputy minister of corrections, probation officers "have the experience, they understand the work, and have a valuable perspective."
It is unfortunate that in a recent Winnipeg Free Press article (Aboriginal leaders balk at union's involvement, Aug. 8, 2006), a handful of aboriginal leaders expressed opposition to the idea that the union and front-line probation officers should be involved in the talks.
Manitoba Métis Federation President Chartrand, for example, was quoted as saying that if the government wanted front-line experience it should simply ask him, as he worked as a probation officer for four years. Chartrand, in a previous Free Press article (Probation new deal for Métis, natives, Sept. 13, 2004), likened Manitoba's probation system to "a babysitting service". Comments like these do little to move the devolution process forward.
The fact is probation services are an important and necessary step in the judicial process. And, quite simply, probation services have changed considerably since Chartrand worked there 20 or more years ago -- particularly since the AJI report was released 15 years ago.
Today, the number of aboriginal probation officers is over 30%. Aboriginal awareness is compulsory training for all probation officers. It is estimated that 80% of aboriginal probation clients have their direct supervision provided by aboriginal staff. Aboriginal programming is threaded through all aspects of probation service delivery. Further, the structure of probation orders imposed by the judiciary increasingly incorporates cultural sensitivity.
There has also been a significant change in the nature and difficulty of the work, as well. Today's clientele are more dangerous and more sophisticated (i.e. of the proliferation of gang and biker activity). The public (rightfully) has a keener eye on accountability. The level of training and expertise required in this line of work has increased considerably. This has generated the need for probation officers to have closer relationships and linkages with police, educators, and institutional corrections.
And let's remember, too, that Manitobans already have experience when it comes to devolving services to aboriginal agencies. Child and Family Services (CFS) went through the devolution process recently, at a time when caseloads for social workers were already dangerously high and other problems within the system were not being addressed. It would have been beneficial to have those workers at the table when the implementation process was taking place. They were not, and serious challenges have since arisen.
Probation officers provide an important perspective and have the experience and expertise that will be beneficial to all parties involved, particularly the public, as devolution unfolds. That's why the union representing front-line probation officers has an important role to play in this process and will be at the table.
Peter Olfert is president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU), which is a component of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). NUPGE