The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada’s indigenous population is overrepresented in federal prisons — and it’s only getting worse

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December 2015. Trudeau has stressed the need for a stronger relationship with the country's indigenous communities. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP)

TORONTO — For more than two decades, Canada’s crime rate has been steadily declining. And since hitting an all-time high in 2012, Canada’s incarceration rate is slowly trending downward, too.

But a report released June 19 from Statistics Canada, the country’s national statistics agency, paints a grim picture of a trend that has for decades bedeviled politicians and that was earlier this month described as “unacceptable” by the chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court: the increasing overrepresentation of indigenous people behind bars.

The report shows that while indigenous people account for roughly 5 percent of Canada’s total population, they represented 27 percent of its prison population in 2016-2017 — an increase of 8 percentage points over the previous decade.

Among youth and women offenders, the overrepresentation is even more dramatic. Indigenous youth — just 8 percent of Canada’s youth population — made up 46 percent of all admissions to correctional services in 2016-2017, a figure that skyrocketed 25 percentage points in a decade. Of all federally sentenced women, 43 percent are indigenous, making them the fastest growing prison population in Canada, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a watchdog for the correctional services.

“This has been a train wreck in slow motion,” said Howard Sapers, an independent adviser to the government of Ontario on changes to the corrections system and the former corrections investigator of Canada. “People have raised the alarm in many different ways over the years, but the trends continue to outpace any efforts to reverse them.”

Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor in politics and public administration at Ryerson University, told Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO that prisons are “essentially the new residential schools.”

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Sapers said that the over-incarceration of indigenous people in Canada is “an artifact of colonial contact.”

But it is also, he said, the result of a “systemic bias built into many of the decision points and many of the process points in our criminal justice system,” from the moment a person is first identified by law enforcement to the time he or she is sentenced to the time he or she appears for a parole hearing.

In a September 2017 speech to the United Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to improve the lives of Canada’s 1.7 million indigenous citizens and acknowledged the “humiliation, neglect and abuse” they have experienced in the past.

Canada’s indigenous people face disproportionately higher rates of suicide, infant mortality and chronic disease than non-indigenous Canadians. Many live in areas with unsafe drinking water and Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has described the overrepresentation of indigenous children in foster care as a “humanitarian crisis.”

A 2017 report from the Office of the Corrections Investigator found that when compared to their non-indigenous counterparts, indigenous offenders are more likely to receive higher security classifications, are less likely to be granted parole and are released from federal custody later in their sentence. They are also more likely than non-indigenous offenders to return to prison due to a suspension or revocation of parole.

That’s because many of the issues plaguing indigenous communities — chronic unemployment, substance abuse dependencies, early childhood trauma, lack of educational opportunities — get converted into risk factors by the psychological assessment tools used by the criminal justice system to determine the risk classification of offenders, whether they should be granted parole and what conditions should be imposed upon them at release.

Earlier this month, a Supreme Court of Canada decision said that the Correctional Service of Canada has failed to prove that these assessment tools are not culturally biased against indigenous prisoners.

“The policies were not racist in intent,” Sapers said. “But they end up being discriminatory in application, and that helps keep spinning the revolving door of indigenous people coming in and out of the system.”

To address the overrepresentation of indigenous people behind bars, Canada's Criminal Code was amended in 1996, urging judges to take into account both the history of systemic abuse and displacement suffered by indigenous people and the detailed individualized history of the offender during pre-sentencing and bail hearings.

In his mandate letter to Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous justice minister, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed her to reduce the number of indigenous people in prison. The federal government’s 2017 budget allocated 65.2 million Canadian dollars over five years beginning in 2017 to help reverse the trend.

Sapers said that much of what will need to be done to ameliorate the situation goes beyond the remit of Canada’s correctional services.

“If you just try to tweak the criminal justice system, you’re just going to be putting a Band-Aid on an open sore,” Sapers said.

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