Kent Roach is a 2013 Trudeau Fellow and Prichard-Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
Increased use of imprisonment is unlikely to reduce the national crisis of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. If imprisonment worked, aboriginal women should be safer. Tragically, this is not the case. In 1984, 8 per cent of female homicide victims were aboriginal; in 2012, despite higher incarceration rates, the figure was 8 per cent.
A recent RCMP report on the subject reveals the power of research and statistics. It discovered more than 250 aboriginal murdered women who were “officially” unknown because of the failure of police and Statistics Canada to record the origins of homicide victims.
At a time when the federal department of justice is cutting funds for research, seemingly because of concerns that research does not always support the government’s message, the RCMP report must have been irritating to a government that stubbornly refuses calls by many aboriginal groups and provincial and territorial governments for a national inquiry.
It seems as if the government’s answer to this national crisis will be found in a bill yet to be introduced criminalizing prostitution and in the proposed Victims’ Bill of Rights before Parliament. The latter bill will amend a Criminal Code provision that encourages judges to use alternative to imprisonment with special regard for the circumstances of aboriginal offenders.
The government has already been gutting Parliament’s 1996 direction to judges to use reasonable alternatives to imprisonment for aboriginal offenders through the introduction of more mandatory sentences and restrictions on conditional sentences.
Aboriginal people already account for more than in 1 in 4 of our prison population.
The RCMP report indicates that 71 per cent of the known killers of aboriginal women have a criminal record compared to 43 per cent of killers of non-aboriginal victims. Imprisonment may incapacitate some of these killers. At the same time, most offenders will be released. There are few rehabilitation programs, especially for aboriginal offenders, in federal prisons. The situation in overcrowded provincial systems is worse.
The idea that crimininalizing prostitution will save aboriginal women is a triumph of ideology over facts. The RCMP report reveals that only 2 per cent of aboriginal murdered women were victims of organized crime. Although 12 per cent were identified as sex workers, the RCMP warns that this is not a significant difference from non-aboriginal victims.
In any event, the Supreme Court has found that laws against solicitation, bawdy houses and living off the avails of prostitution make sex workers less safe. Many of the same concerns would apply to the government’s anticipated solution of making the purchase (and perhaps even the sale) of sex illegal. It will force sex workers underground where they are will become even more vulnerable to crime.
Calls for an inquiry should not be dismissed. The British Columbia Missing Women Inquiry found that the police missed possible leads in the Pickton case because it did not work closely with aboriginal communities. The police need advice on how to engage with Aboriginal communities who have many reasons to be suspicious of them.
The greatest value of an inquiry, however, would be to demonstrate that Canadians care about the lost aboriginal mothers and daughters.
Such an inquiry would “commit sociology,” but in doing so it would educate Canadians about the roots of the victimization of aboriginal women in residential schools, child-welfare apprehensions, sexual discrimination under the Indian Act, conditions on reserves, poverty and addictions.
Imprisoning people is very expensive. Other forms of support for aboriginal families and communities seem more promising. The RCMP report calls for crime prevention that works with community partners and other parts of government. It does not pretend that imprisonment is the answer.
The divide between criminals and victims that the federal government stresses is often a false one, especially for aboriginal people. More than a third of women in prison are Aboriginal and this is also part of the story.
A public inquiry that listened to the affected families and communities might help Canadians better understand the causes of this serious national problem. It might reveal more constructive and less expensive ways than imprisonment to reduce violence against aboriginal women. Canada has already heavily invested in imprisonment.
Unfortunately it is not making aboriginal women safer.