Innocence Canada—A Lifeline for Canada’s Wrongfully Imprisoned

Innocence Canada—A Lifeline for Canada’s Wrongfully Imprisoned

Few Canadians are likely to be aware that a former Crown attorney in Manitoba has the distinction of being recognized as the Crown with the most wrongful convictions against innocent Canadians.  During this Crown’s time as a prosecutor, they were found to have paid prisoners in jail to testify against individuals who ended up being wrongfully convicted, and they had multiple cases that would eventually end up getting overturned—including four separate convictions for murder.

Such outcomes might be why many academics, activists, and lawyers who have familiarity with Canada’s legal system have voiced opinions that Canada’s prisons likely hold individuals who have been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  It may also be why there might not be a prison across Canada that has not held individuals who were wrongfully convicted of crimes that they did not commit.

Although many of the individuals who have been wrongfully convicted have often been some of society’s most marginalized members, wrongful convictions can happen to anyone.  While a wrongful conviction is not a linear process, what is common across most is that they are caused by several factors coming together such as false guilty pleas, false confessions, professional misconduct, tunnel vision, systemic discrimination, eyewitness identification error, forensic science limitations or errors, jailhouse informant testimony, and Mr. Big Stings.

One organization that has dedicated itself to helping exonerate those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned across Canada’s prisons is Innocence Canada (formerly known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, AIDWYC), including five cases relating to wrongful convictions that went back to the Manitoba Crown attorney.  Since 1993, Innocence Canada has been successful at exonerating 29 innocent people, and it has provided expertise and assistance for several other innocent persons who were not directly Innocence Canada’s clients.

After reaching out to Innocence Canada, their Director of Education, Pamela Glatt, shared the path that led her to having a career involved with Canada’s wrongful conviction landscape.  Our discussion touched on everything from Glatt’s time as university student to working with Innocence Canada and lecturing at universities, and how aspiring lawyers and non-lawyers can join the efforts in helping overturn wrongful convictions.

Pamela Glatt and Wrongful Convictions.

The path that led Pamela Glatt to Innocence Canada began at law school.  As a law student, Glatt volunteered with Innocence Canada doing an education-focused assignment looking at the lack of mention of wrongful convictions in law school courses and in bar materials.  What resulted from this project was the revelation that wrongful convictions were barely addressed in law schools, with most Canadian law students graduating without even hearing about wrongful convictions.

In addition to her law degree, Glatt holds a Masters in Criminology, and. prior to joining Innocence Canada, was teaching undergraduate criminology for over a decade.  However, it was her volunteer work with Innocence Canada during law school that inspired her to start including a wrongful conviction topic in every criminology course she taught.  In addition, she has also taught courses specifically on wrongful convictions.  Fast forward to her current role as Innocence Canada’s Director of Education and Glatt has made it her mission to educate law students across the country on wrongful convictions. Over the last school year she has delivered over 20 lectures at law schools across Canada.

Glatt’s approach to teaching about wrongful convictions was that the topic be included in every course, ranging from psychology courses to gender courses.  Wrongful convictions intersected with a variety of different subjects, and exploring the topic under different lenses of study was necessary for a holistic understanding of Canada’s legal system.  But much of what Glatt taught was influenced by the realization she had while working in criminal defence as a law student: that aspects of the legal system could be better.

Glatt worked in criminal defence during her summers in law school and continued in articling.  What really stuck with her is that so many people in prison were also victims of criminalization.  Many did not necessarily belong there and could have benefitted from more supports and resources rather than criminalization.  She could see that there were so many nuances that can result in criminalization, and so much of how a case plays out is related to those same factors that can lead to a wrongful conviction, such as the police officers involved, the Crown attorneys involved, an individual’s defense lawyer, their access to resources, and whether they could qualify for legal aid or not.

Glatt saw how our legal system worked to criminalize rather than rehabilitate. Things like mandatory minimum sentences, or the difficulties in securing bails for clients that do not have a support system so wind up staying in jail until trial or pleading guilty.  The rules around mandatory minimum sentencing make it so that the circumstances bringing a person before a judge do not matter.  It serves as an example of how removing a judge’s ability to exercise judicial discretion can have unforeseen negative impacts on the legal system and our society at large.  Nonetheless, the experience was enough for Glatt to realize that too many people were falling through the cracks and that she wanted to make a larger impact by bettering Canada’s legal system.

From her days teaching university students to becoming the director of education for Innocence Canada, Glatt continues to work toward the goal of every student at a Canadian law school having to learn about wrongful convictions, but also expand this thinking to medical schools and residency programs (forensic pathology) that intersect with the legal system.

Glatt has visited and guest lectured at over half of Canada’s law schools, and it is having a positive effect on the next generation of legal professionals.  Student recruitment numbers have skyrocketed across the country for Innocence Canada, but it is what the future generation of legal professionals are saying when they engage with Glatt and Innocence Canada.

Most lawyers who work in wrongful convictions (or encounter them through their work) learn about it on the job, it is not generally something they are taught before facing them.  But Innocence Canada is helping to change that through their internal student programs as well as external opportunities such as guest lecturing at law schools.  Each summer Innocence Canada hires law students across the country, this summer they have 6 students from a variety of law schools – University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, Western University, Osgoode Hall at York University, Dalhousie University, and Toronto Metropolitan University.  And whether students dream of working for Innocence Canada post-law school, or whether they go on to work in other areas of the criminal justice system, Pam loves that they will bring with them the knowledge and awareness of wrongful convictions that they learned during their time at Innocence Canada.  Innocence Canada has had students go on to work at the Dept of Justice, provincial pathology offices, criminal defence, and prosecution.  These students will change the world because they are equipped with the ability to question and look at a case through the lens of wrongful convictions.

More work is required for Glatt’s goal of having wrongful convictions become more incorporated into law school curriculums because there are still law schools across Canada that do not give the topic the attention it deserves.  Glatt suggested that an achievable baseline for universities is for them to aim to ensure that students in relevant programs, such as criminology and law, graduate having heard about the topic of wrongful convictions for an hour in a course.

For any aspiring lawyers that might be interested in wrongful convictions, Glatt emphasized the importance of law students not pigeonholing themselves into a certain career path and the importance of being open about learning new things.  She also felt it important for students who wanted to work with Innocence Canada to not get discouraged if they did not get to do so with their initial application, and that there were quite a few who were there now who did not get in on their first application.

Perhaps the most important message from Glatt came from her description of Canada’s wrongful conviction landscape and why this was a topic everyone should get familiar with.  “Wrongful convictions are caused by a perfect storm of a multitude of factors.  But at the end of the day, it is people that cause wrongful convictions.  But people can also remedy wrongful convictions.”

Restorative Justice and Reformative Justice

Canada’s current approach to criminalizing its way out of problems has not been very successful, nor will we ever know how many innocent Canadians have been imprisoned because of wrongful convictions.  Restoring faith in Canada’s institutions and reforming failed policies requires two lenses: a restorative justice lens and reformative justice lens.

One lens focuses on a victim-centric approach that includes repairing harms and mediating around historical outcomes, with specific individuals and necessary communities.  The other focuses on rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, with alternatives to incarceration like educational pathways and holistic supports, and by bringing about policy and systemic change.  Because the traditional punitive model of justice does not seem to work.

Manitoba’s former Crown attorney may be the Crown that is most associated with wrongful convictions, but wrongful convictions are an unfortunate part of the history of every province and territory.  For anyone wanting to learn more on Canada’s wrongful conviction landscape, more information can be found by visiting Innocence Canada or Wrongful Conviction Day.

Mason, R.  (2020), “Wrongful Convictions Canada” Parliamentary Information and Research Service.  Retrieved from