Canada’s prison’s watchdog will present a rare report to Parliament in an attempt to halt the disproportionate and growing number of aboriginal people behind bars federally.
Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator, will table a report Thursday called “Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act,” which is expected to come down hard on the federal government for failing the country’s indigenous population.
The report marks just the second time since the Office of the Correctional Investigator began operating under its own legislation more than 20 years ago that the investigator has deemed a situation to be so urgent and important that a special report had to be written for Parliament.
That first nations, Inuit and Metis people are overrepresented in federal prisons is not news. But the numbers are increasing and aboriginal leaders say the problem is only going to get worse because of a lack of funding for education and social services on reserves.
“It is a widely recognized crisis and tragedy in so many respects,” said Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which provided input for the report. “We follow the work of Mr. Sapers’ office very closely and we should all be reminded that this is part of the broad pattern that we absolutely have to break.”
Since 2005-06 the federal aboriginal inmate population has grown by 43.5 per cent, compared with a 9.6-per-cent increase among non-aboriginal inmates. And while aboriginal people make up about 4 per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 23.2 per cent of the people in federal institutions.
Put another way, the incarceration rate for aboriginal adults in Canada is estimated to be 10 times higher than that of other Canadians.
Mr. Atleo points out that the first nations are now before a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal arguing that they should receive the same money for child welfare that is provided by provinces to other Canadians communities. And reserves have been falling behind in funding for education for many years because the federal government has imposed caps on increases.
“You open the door to a school and you close the door to a jail cell,” Mr. Atleo said. “We’ve got at least 20 communities that need schools right now and we are struggling in getting a resolution.”
Mr. Sapers would not discuss the report before it is tabled in Parliament. But in a speech in January he said the “alarming and long-lingering” failure to stop the swell of aboriginal people in correctional facilities will have an enduring effect.
The only other special report of a Correctional Investigator was written in 1994 after an all-male emergency response team conducted a raid on the now-closed Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont., and forced the female inmates to lie naked and shackled on the floor. That resulted in a commission of inquiry by Louise Arbour, now a Supreme Court justice, that recommended significant change in the way women behind bars are treated.
Prisoners advocates are hoping the new report will prompt a similar understanding of the plight of indigenous Canadians.
Although there are large numbers of aboriginal men in Canada’s prisons, the problem is even more acute for aboriginal women, who account for more than one-third of all federal female inmates.
Kim Pate, the executive director for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said she hopes Mr. Sapers’s report will discuss the fact that aboriginal prisoners are routinely classified as higher risk and higher need.
“They often have less access to their families and communities of support, in large part due to poverty and inaccessibility, especially if they are from the North or more remote communities,” Ms. Pate said. In addition, she said, they are held longer than other prisoners, they are more likely to be held in maximum security or segregation, and they are disproportionately involved in uses of force by prison staff.
Now is the time for action, and money must be included to address the problem in the upcoming federal budget, Mr. Atleo said. “The numbers are deeply troubling, and they should be for the entire country.”