Photo: flickr/ Gunnar Ries

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The disproportionate representation of Aboriginal people in Canada’s prision population has recently been brought back to attention by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada.

Over 25 per cent of federally sentenced inmates are Aboriginal people, he says. Yet only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population is Aboriginal, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

More than 36 per cent of women in federal prison are Aboriginal — representing the fasting growing inmate population in Canada — and 48 per cent of federal inmates in the Prairies are Aboriginal. Federal corrections centres hold offenders who are serving sentences of two years or more in length.

Sapers’ concerns have brought renewed scrutiny to the relationship of Aboriginal people to Canada’s justice system and the conditions faced by Aboriginal offenders. This came days before a Saskatchewan shooting in the largely Aboriginal community of La Loche which constituted the worst school violence in Canada since 1989.

Sapers pointed out, in a phone interview with rabble, that the reasons for the disparity and its increased growth are complex and fall outside of the mandate of his office, but nevertheless emphasized the importance of understanding and addressing multiple causes both outside and within the justice system.

“Our focus is really on what happens during the administration of a sentence, not focused on the issues that brought people into conflict with the law. That being said, of course, a big part of corrections is to prepare people for release and to live law-abiding lives. And one of the ways that you do that by dealing with those issues that did lead them into their criminal lifestyle,” Sapers said.

Sapers identified the past citing of colonialism, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop as contributing factors. Equally, Sapers highlighted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report and its findings regarding systematized discrimination and chronic suffering related to addictions and lack of education and employment opportunities.

“These are men and women. They are not defined by the worst thing they ever did at one point in their life. They are defined by the sum total of all of their experiences. And sadly, for many Aboriginal Canadians, those life experiences are full of trauma, both immediate personal trauma and also intergenerational trauma.”

The Trudeau government has stated its intent to implement the TRC’s recommendations as well as the Kelowna Accord, an agreement reached in 2005 that was meant to improve socioeconomic conditions of Aboriginal people.

Worse numbers for women

Kim Pate, the director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, speaking to rabble in a phone interview, echoed Sapers’ concerns and highlighted some of the particular impacts on women, including clients.

“Unfortunately, we’re not surprised,” Pate said when asked about her reaction to learning about the increased growth in Aboriginal incarceration. “This is something we have been monitoring as well and have been raising concerns about — the fact that Aboriginal women, particularly those with mental health issues, are among the fastest-growing prison population in this country.”

Pate went on to identify the impact of the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) as a significant factor in worsening economic conditions for women.

“The ability, then, for provinces to cut resources to social services, health care, education spending, all of that has contributed to putting women in a more marginalized position than they were, even historically. So although we have legal equality, we don’t have economic, social or — what we refer to as — substantive equality.”

The CAP was replaced with the Canada Health and Social Transfer in 1995, changing the nature of transfer payments to the provinces, though the CHST itself was split into two components in 2004.

“[I]ncreasingly, social needs, economic needs are ending up causing people to be in such marginalized conditions that they may be victimized and/or criminalized. That’s particularly true for Indigenous women,” said Pate.

She continued, “So we’ve seen, for instance, people being jailed essentially because they’re homeless, people who are literally begging in the streets or requesting services being accused of harassing people or worse, they may be accused of robbery or those sorts of things. We’ve seen women working the streets, particularly Indigenous women, who, after performing a sex act for which they were solicited, when they request the money they may then be accused of trying to rob someone.

And, as many of the women I know would say, the reality is, once they’re in that situation, who gets believed is not them.”

Pate went on to highlight the impact of violence against women, expressing that Aboriginal women who defend themselves or defend others from violence are more likely be charged or plead guilty without justification. She also reflected on the role of crime legislation passed under the previous government.

Crime laws passed under the Conservatives included provisions that imposed mandatory minimums sentences and removed the possibility for house arrest in certain offences. It also changed the system of pardons and temporarily ended double credit for time spent in pre-trial custody. 

“The reality is that so many of the reforms have resulted in increased and more punitive sentences,” Pate said, expressing that they have made it more difficult for former inmates to integrate once released.

Corrections-specific areas for improvement

Past reports from Sapers’ office have highlighted an array of issues that contribute to the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and have included numerous recommendations that have yet to be implemented.

Sapers has emphasized that, for example, that parts of legislation governing corrections in Canada, including elements directly related to Aboriginal communities, have never been fully implemented.

The ombudsman has highlighted Sections 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which were meant to provide for provide for healing lodges and give Aboriginal communities a defined role in helping offenders re-enter society. The lodges are  correctional facilities that provide cultural programming and appear to reduce re-contact with the justice system. But these parts of the law have been almost unknown.

“There’s only been a half a dozen of these agreements signed in 20 years. And [there are] very few beds being operated by Aboriginal communities under this law,” Sapers told rabble.

“When those provisions were brought in in 1992 there was no effort made in the initial instance to ensure that Aboriginal communities knew about them,” Pate said, continuing “..It was ludicrous to think that the excuse for life not being breathed into that portion of the legislation was that no communities came forward.”

Sapers has also called for a deputy commissioner in Corrections Canada that would be specifically responsible for Aboriginal corrections, re-iterating his past recommendation in November when the Liberals first came to power.

When asked if he had expectations that such a commissioner would actually be put in place, Sapers joked, “I never have expectations, I avoid a lot of disappointment that way.”  

“We’ve made the recommendation and we believe its an important one, that the executive of the Correctional Service of Canada should include an assistant commissioner responsible for the Aboriginal initiatives. …We think it’s too important just to be part of someone’s job. We think it needs to have focused leadership and we think that that will bring a different level of accountability when we’re talking about progress on these issues,” Sapers said.

Pate agreed that a deputy commissioner could have a meaningful impact within the corrections system.

“It’s been recommended for some time. We would argue that if they do set that up, the person should have line authority,” Pate said, later adding that the analogous position, the deputy commission for women’s corrections, lacks line authority and therefore control over prison wardens.

“[T]hey should have the ability to actually directly influence what happens within the prison setting for Indigenous persons. If they don’t have line authority, then likely whatever they recommend will be ignored.”


Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John’s. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or

Cory Collins

Cory Collins

Cory Collins is a nonfiction writer, visual artist, poet and contributor to and other publications. His poetry, criticism and art work have appeared in the Island Review, Lemon...