Residential school victim gets lenient sentence for burning girl 27 times
Native children and nuns are seen in front of a residential school in Maliotenam, Que., circa 1950. (Library Archives of Canada)
Alain Bellemare, an Atikamekw from Wemotaci, Que., about 270 kilometres north of Montreal, was convicted of aggravated assault last June, and Crown prosecutor Eric Theriault sought a four-year prison term on the grounds that serious crimes against children have to be forcefully denounced. He noted that the 2011 assaults caused 27 third-degree burns — 25 from a cigarette and two from a lighter. The victim, who cannot be identified, was left to suffer without medical treatment.
But in sentencing Bellemare to 15 months on April 1, Quebec Court Judge Guy Lambert said the lingering effect of residential schools had to be taken into account under federal sentencing guidelines.
Bellemare, who was 21 at the time of the assaults, is too young to have attended a residential school, as are his parents. But he grew up in an abusive household that the court heard was a legacy of residential school abuse suffered by his grandparents. All four of his grandparents were removed from the community to attend residential schools.
The judge said Bellemare is among the “collateral victims of residential schools and of the cultural genocide that the Atikamekws of Wemotaci experienced.”
He agreed that the violence inflicted by Bellemare was “serious, revolting and must be denounced to protect other children who are victims of violence.” But he concluded that the four years sought by the Crown was excessive in light of the accused’s aboriginal heritage.
“The court imposes a less severe sentence on Mr. Bellemare considering the consequences experienced by the community because of residential schools and the aboriginal reality,” Lambert ruled.
A 1996 change to the Criminal Code, aimed at correcting an over-representation of aboriginal convicts in prisons, directed judges to take into account the “circumstances of aboriginal offenders” when sentencing.
Subsequent Supreme Court of Canada decisions in the Gladue and Ipeelee cases have provided more guidance, clarifying that the particular circumstances of aboriginal offenders should be considered even in cases of serious crimes. Aboriginal defendants can request a special pre-sentencing report known as a Gladue report.
Theriault said in an interview that the Crown is studying whether to appeal the Bellemare sentence. He said that this is the most serious case he has encountered where a defendant’s aboriginal background has led to a reduced sentence.
“Usually it’s things like simple assault or not respecting conditions imposed by the court,” he said. “In this case, the crime was so serious that we felt the Gladue report should apply less.”
David Milward, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said he understands why a sentence like Bellemare’s could generate controversy. He suspects opinion would be split even in aboriginal communities, which have a strong interest in protecting children.
“On the counterbalance, how can you be more constructive when you have this pervasive history of abuse and degrading social conditions?” he asked.
“There are some specially unique circumstances that are involved with aboriginal persons that can be traced back to colonialism and residential schools.”
The defence had asked for a suspended sentence and three years probation. The judge said the fact that Bellemare denied in court that he burned the child, even though he earlier confessed to police, was cause for concern. Bellemare, who admitted to heavy methamphetamine use at the time of the assault, claimed that he thought the girl’s scars were from chicken pox.
A pediatrician testified that the scars were clearly caused by a cigarette and a lighter and that they would never disappear. The trial heard testimony from the victim identifying Bellemare as the attacker.
The girl said she “screamed and cried, because it hurt,” Lambert noted in his ruling finding Bellemare guilty. “She does not know in how many places the accused touched her with his cigarette.”