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Marion Buller, who was chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Smithers, B.C., on September 26, 2017.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The head of Canada’s most prominent advocacy group for Indigenous women chastised the federal government on Thursday for its response to a Globe and Mail story detailing the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in federal prisons.

The article cited information from Canada’s prison ombudsman, who said Indigenous women now make up half the population of female federal inmates – a disproportionate figure, considering the fact that only about 5 per cent of Canadian women are Indigenous.

Asked about the issue in the House of Commons during Question Period on Thursday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino acknowledged that the overrepresentation is “unacceptable” and said the government would address the problem with a range of mostly unspecified reforms.

Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association, criticized Mr. Mendicino’s answer.

“Successive federal governments have failed to reduce the obscenely disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous women in Canada,” she said. “For that reason, we hoped to hear some passion, and indeed some outrage, from the minister when he was asked about this issue in the House of Commons. Instead, we got rehashed responses that reflected none of the anger we are feeling today.”

Mr. Mendicino was speaking in response to a question from Leah Gazan, the NDP’s critic for the status of women, who referenced the Globe story before asking when the government would heed long-standing calls to appoint a deputy commissioner responsible entirely for Indigenous issues within the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

In response, Mr. Mendicino said: “We must acknowledge the continued legacy of colonialism in our justice system. The vast overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, including women, is unacceptable.”

He added that the Liberal government would work to reverse the overrepresentation trend through cultural sensitivity training, legislation repealing mandatory minimum sentences and “a whole suite of other reforms.”

For Marion Buller, who was chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the answer was inadequate. “The minister’s response, with all due respect, falls into the thoughts and prayers category,” she said. “There’s nothing there.”

As of last week, federal prisons held 298 non-Indigenous women and 298 Indigenous women. This is the first time the ratio has reached 50/50, the ombudsman, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger, told The Globe.

The share of all Indigenous people – men and women – in federal prison cells has increased from around 12 per cent in 1997 to 32 per cent today.

For almost 20 years, Dr. Zinger’s office has been recommending that the CSC adopt a deputy commissioner role devoted entirely to Indigenous issues, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls made the idea one of its 231 calls for justice.

As of this week, CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly, who reports to the Public Safety Minister, would only say through a spokesperson that she is “open” to creating the post.

“That’s not progress,” Ms. Buller said. “The only progress is when the job description is written, the applications are taken and someone is hired.”

Earlier in the line of questioning from Ms. Gazan, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller responded that, despite government investment in reducing violence against Indigenous women, “the results are trailing.”

Ms. Buller said she took some solace in Mr. Miller’s comments. “I’m very glad he said it, because the results, if any, are trailing. It’s nice to hear a minister acknowledge that a government is not doing what it could have and should have been doing to heed calls for justice, to make this country safe for Indigenous women and girls, and get Indigenous women out of jail.”

In 1996, Ottawa tried to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons with a Criminal Code provision that directed judges to consider a person’s Indigenous background during sentencing. The government’s hope was that this would mitigate sentences and divert significant numbers of Indigenous people away from incarceration. The Supreme Court’s 1999 Gladue decision reaffirmed the provision and called the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in prison “a crisis.”

“If it was a crisis then, what is it now?” Ms. Groulx said. “Why have the recommendations to address this horrific situation that have been made by Correctional Investigators, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls been ignored?”

With a report from Kristy Kirkup

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