Too many Aboriginal offenders languish in federal prisons: report

“These are disturbing trends that raise important questions about equality”


Canada's correctional investigator found in his latest annual report that the proportion of Aboriginal people doing time in federal prisons is growing. (FILE PHOTO)

Canada’s correctional investigator found in his latest annual report that the proportion of Aboriginal people doing time in federal prisons is growing. (FILE PHOTO)

(Updated Nov. 27 10:23 a.m.)

The number of Aboriginal people incarcerated within federal prisons in Canada has increased by 46 per cent over the past eight years, Canada’s prison watchdog found in a report issued Nov. 26.

And Canada’s correctional investigator Howard Sapers said in his latest annual report that this number highlighted “disturbing trends.”

The report, tabled in Parliament Nov. 26, slams the Canadian justice system for not doing enough about the rising proportion of Aboriginal people doing time in federal penitentiaries.

In the report, Saper found the proportion of Aboriginal people inside federal correctional facilities has risen to 22 per cent of all inmates.

By comparison, Aboriginal people comprise only 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population, Statistics Canada reported in 2011.

“Current sentencing trends combined with a growing and youthful demographic indicate that the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Canada’s correctional system is likely to grow,” the report reads.

“These are disturbing trends that raise important questions about equality and our justice system in Canada,” added Sapers.

Also stated in Saper’s report is that “Aboriginal offenders are kept behind bars for longer periods and at higher security levels than their non-aboriginal counterparts.”

Almost 35 per cent of all federally sentenced women — one in three — are Aboriginal, the report found.

And Aboriginal offenders also “accounted for 45 per cent of all self-injury incidents in federal prisons last fiscal year.”

According to the Government of Nunavut’s department of justice, a total of 85 people from Nunavut are in federal prisons as of Nov. 25. There are 161 territorial inmates — 32 of which are in incarcerated outside of Nunavut.

Last March Sapers tabled a special report called Spirit Matters.

In it, Sapers said “the federal correctional system perpetuates conditions of disadvantage for Aboriginal people in Canada.”

But not a lot has changed, he notes in his latest annual report.

“I expected a meaningful and comprehensive response, consistent with the extraordinary measures that were taken to have Spirit Matters laid before Parliament. In the end, the Correctional Service’s response was neither,” Sapers wrote in the report.

Sapers said the Correctional Service of Canada’s response to the special report was “simply recycled previously held CSC positions” and lacked “substance, meaning and clarity.”

“My conclusion then, as it is now, is that CSC’s response did not meet the urgency, immediacy or importance of the issues that my special report to Parliament warranted,” Sapers said.

Sapers has three recommendations this time around:

They are:

• that the CSC publish a public accountability report card summarizing key correctional outcomes, programs and services;

• an update to its response to Spirit Matters in collaboration and consultation with its National Aboriginal Advisory Committee; and,

• that the CSC audit the use of Gladue principles in correctional decision making affecting the significant life and liberty interests of Aboriginal offenders.

Gladue principles — or a consideration of Aboriginal peoples’ social history — are not taken into consideration as they should when sentences are handed down, Sapers said.

Gladue principle factors listed in the report include:

• effects of the residential school system;

• experience in the child welfare or adoption system;

• effects of the dislocation and dispossession of Aboriginal people;

• family or community history of suicide, substance abuse and/or victimization;

• loss of, or struggle with, cultural and spiritual identity;

• level or lack of formal education;

• poverty and poor living conditions; and,

• exposure to, or membership in, Aboriginal street gangs.

But that isn’t necessarily a Nunavut problem says Nunavut and Ontario defense lawyer James Morton.

“You don’t need to do that in Nunavut because the court is very well aware that the large majority of people that appear before them are of Aboriginal heritage,” Morton told Nunatsiaq News.

But Gladue principles have to go beyond sentencing, Morton said.

“It goes back to the idea that you need to have culturally appropriate rehabilitation and treatment programs, and that’s lacking at the moment in many of the federal institutions,” Morton said.

That’s another recommendation made by Sapers in his report.

He said the CSC should establish an ethnicity liaison officer at each institution “ensuring the needs of visible minority inmates are met and facilitating culturally appropriate program development.”

Morton said other factors are at play when it comes to the incarceration of Nunavummiut.

“Howard Sapers’ report is an accurate reflection. But I think the situation in Nunavut is more a lack of resources than a lack of intentions. And that’s a big problem,” Morton said.

“There’s a reason why there’s an over-representation of Aboriginal offenders. It runs through the justice system and the education system and the economic system,” he said.

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