The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

Statistics in context: Aboriginals in Canada’s prisons

June 25 2015 25 June 2015

A report today from the Public Safety Canada Portfolio Corrections Statistics Committee says that aboriginal offenders in Canada are entering the system at a younger age than other offenders, and staying in prison longer.

The 2014 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview states that nearly half of aboriginal offenders are under 30 when they enter the system, compared with 36 per cent of non-aboriginal offenders, and they are more likely to serve two-thirds of their sentence, compared with the one-third generally served by other offenders.

In addition, the proportion of the prison population of aboriginal background (which includes Inuit, Innu, Métis and North American Indian) increased to 20.9 per cent between 2009-10 and 2013-14, rising from 4,019 to 4,860. Aboriginal women represent 34.5 per cent of all women in prison, while aboriginal men represent 22.6 per cent of male prisoners. Aboriginal adults represent about three per cent of the total Canadian population.

As well, aboriginal offenders are more likely to be sent to medium- or high-security institutions and less likely to be classified a minimum security risk than non-aboriginal offenders.

This overview contains a lot of statistics and tables but not a lot of contextualizing. So let’s turn elsewhere for that. The 2013 CBA report Reaching Equal Justice says of the experience of marginalized communities in the justice system, “One clear concern was that the justice system does not recognize or understand the social and personal realities of the people living in marginalized conditions progressing through it.” It adds, “the system and its actions actually perpetuate or aggravate the problems that got people involved in the system initially.”

Aboriginal people interviewed for the report had a uniformly negative view of the legal system and their ability to access justice within it.

“Justice is to protect us, not to abuse us. It has been used to overpower or manipulate us,” the report quotes one aboriginal woman in Saskatoon as saying.

At the Summit, (Patricia) Hughes reminded us that acknowledging diversity is not about including the ‘other’ but rather it is about all of us. The challenge is to approach the task of building an inclusive justice system not from a list of categories, like gender or Aboriginality, but based on people’s relationship to the justice system and their need for assistance in different situations. Maria Campbell also spoke about the importance of working across differences in a manner that builds trust and empowers, rather than erects or reinforces boundaries.

This idea is also behind some of the recommendations contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released earlier this month. The report calls for education curricula that accurately reflect the aboriginal experience in this country, and also recommends lawyers in particular undergo cultural sensitivity training in law school to better understand and appreciate their clients’ experience.

“The causes of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people are complex. The convictions of Aboriginal offenders frequently result from an interplay of factors, including the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. Aboriginal overrepresentation in prison reflects a systemic bias in the Canadian justice system,” the report says.

One thing the Commission was told was that residential school survivors found it easier to integrate into the correctional system than to life outside the schools – the patterns were familiar to them and they knew how to survive there.

And the legacy of the schools, the report suggests, is seen in the statistics of aboriginal over-incarceration.

It should not be surprising that those who were sexually abused in the schools as children sometimes perpetuated sexual violence later in their lives. It should not be surprising that those who were taken from their parents and exposed to harsh and regimented discipline in the schools and disparagement of their culture and families often became poor and sometimes violent parents later in their lives. It should not be surprising that those who were exposed to poor education and to spiritual and cultural abuse in the schools later turned to alcohol and drugs as a means to cope and try to forget. The consequences for many students and their families were tragic.

With specific regard to the correctional system, the report offers these calls to action, among others:

30) We call upon federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so;

31) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to provide sufficient and stable funding to implement and evaluate community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending;

32) We call upon the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to allow trial judges, upon giving reasons, to depart from mandatory minimum sentences and restrictions on the use of conditional sentences;

34) We call upon the governments of Canada, the provinces, and territories to undertake reforms to the criminal justice system to better address the needs of offenders with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), including: i. Providing increased community resources and powers for courts to ensure that FASD is properly diagnosed, and that appropriate community supports are in place for those with FASD. ii. Enacting statutory exemptions from mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment for offenders affected by FASD. iii. Providing community, correctional, and parole resources to maximize the ability of people with FASD to live in the community. iv. Adopting appropriate evaluation mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of such programs and ensure community safety;

35) We call upon the federal government to eliminate barriers to the creation of additional Aboriginal healing lodges within the federal correctional system.

36) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to work with Aboriginal communities to provide culturally relevant services to inmates on issues  such as substance abuse, family and domestic violence, and overcoming the experience of having been sexually abused.

37) We call upon the federal government to provide more supports for Aboriginal programming in halfway houses and parole services.

Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society told the CBC that this last point may have something to do with  the fact that aboriginal offenders are more likely to spend longer in prison than non-aboriginals: struggles to secure housing, an inmate's criminal record and high caseloads for legal aid lawyers all contribute to longer wait times for release of aboriginal inmates in federal prisons, she said.

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