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The Liberal government has introduced legislation that would repeal 20 mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug and gun crimes.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in federal prisons is “appalling,” and that the government’s push to eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences will help address the problem.

“There’s much more to do,” Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday when asked about the issue in St. John’s. “Recent reports have just been appalling, in seeing the overrepresentation, particularly of Indigenous women, in our criminal system.”

Mr. Trudeau was responding to new numbers on Indigenous incarceration from the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Earlier this month, a Globe and Mail report on those numbers revealed that Indigenous women now account for half of all federally incarcerated women. Only 5 per cent of women in Canada are Indigenous, according to the 2016 census.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve moved forward on eliminating certain mandatory minimums,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

The Liberal government has introduced legislation, Bill C-5, that would repeal 20 mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug and gun crimes.

“Mandatory minimums do lead to an overrepresentation of vulnerable and marginalized people in our criminal justice system,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We know there’s much more to do and we will. Tackling systemic discrimination, which is real, is long, hard work that we are committed to.”

Mandatory minimum penalties are pieces of legislation that set a sentence “floor” – the lightest possible punishment a person can be handed for a given crime. These types of penalties have long been criticized by Indigenous and Black advocacy groups, which claim mandatory minimums disproportionately target racialized communities and take decision-making power out of the hands of judges. There are currently 73 mandatory minimums in Canadian law, many of which are being challenged in court.

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Indigenous imprisonment rates have been climbing for decades, despite pledges from successive governments to address the disparity. In 2015, after the Liberal Party formed government for the first time since 2005, Mr. Trudeau’s mandate letter to then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould asked for “initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration amongst Indigenous Canadians.”

At the time, Indigenous women made up 35 per cent of women in prison.

Kim Pate, an independent senator from Ontario who has dedicated much of her life to advocating for female prisoners, said she was pleased to see Mr. Trudeau weighing in on the overincarceration of Indigenous women. “Two decades ago, the Supreme Court of Canada called this a crisis,” she said. “I don’t know what you’d call it now.”

But Ms. Pate cautioned that the government’s legislation may not be a panacea. “The data the government has sent us reveals that Bill C-5 will not have an appreciable impact,” she said, “and certainly won’t result in the decrease that they are characterizing the bill as being capable of achieving.”

While C-5 could reduce the number of people serving time in provincial jails, Ms. Pate said she found no evidence that it would affect federal sentences. In Canada, virtually all people sentenced to two years or longer end up in federal prison.

“I don’t know what it will take for the government to act,” she said. “But there’s no excuse not to act.”

On Monday, a Globe and Mail story detailed a report produced by Ms. Pate and two fellow senators that describes “systemic inequality” and miscarriages of justice in the criminal cases of 12 Indigenous women. The report calls for the exoneration of those 12 women, all of whom are either in federal prison, on parole, on conditional release or at mental-health facilities.

Lynne Groulx, chief executive officer of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said the government has been too slow in addressing systemic issues in the criminal justice system.

The federal government seems to have made a “half-hearted commitment“ to tackling these issues, Ms. Groulx said. “They have to come up with a much more comprehensive program.”

She added that she would like to see a rapid increase in investment in criminal diversion programs, in which accused are given treatment or redirected to traditional Indigenous justice systems instead of being sent to jail.

“We don’t want Band-Aid solutions anymore,” she said. “There are solutions out there, but those solutions haven’t been funded.”

While Bill C-5 is a positive step, it will only help people once they are already on the verge of being incarcerated, Ms. Groulx said. “You need to look at ways to stop women from getting in the prison in the first place.”

Of Mr. Trudeau and the federal government, Ms. Groulx said, “He really needs to listen.”

“I think if they do that, then they will find some solutions to these long-standing problems.”

Conservative justice critic Rob Moore said Bill C-5 does nothing to address the overincarceration of Indigenous women. He characterized the legislation as a “soft-on-crime” bill that would endanger communities by weakening penalties for certain types of offences.

Leah Gazan, the NDP’s women’s critic, said she was encouraged that the government was removing some mandatory minimum sentences “after years of pressure from the NDP caucus,” but added that the government “is not going far enough to stop ongoing systemic racism in the justice system.”

With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

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