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Politics Prison watchdog exhorts Ottawa to do more to reduce aboriginal incarceration rate

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers hold a news conference to speak to the findings and recommendations of a Special Report tabled in Parliament entitled, "Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act," in Ottawa on Thursday March 7, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The already disproportionate number of aboriginals held in federal institutions is on the rise, and Canada's prisons watchdog says government efforts over more than two decades to address the disparity have largely been a failure.

Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator, tabled a highly critical report in Parliament on Thursday that accuses the government of mounting an "insufficient response" to the ballooning incarceration of first nations, Inuit and Métis people – inaction that has seen the population of aboriginal inmates in federal penitentiaries increase by 43 per cent in the past five years alone.

If the problem is not addressed, "a critical situation is just going to get worse," Mr. Sapers told reporters. "By any reasonable measure – including the degree to which the will of Parliament has been respected – the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in federal corrections and the lack of progress to improve the disparity in correctional outcomes continues to cloud Canada's human-rights record."

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While aboriginal people comprise just 4 per cent of the Canadian population, they make up 23 per cent of the federal inmate population and account for one in three federally sentenced women.

Mr. Sapers said the disparity is attributable to social, economic and historical factors, as well as a burgeoning number of young people in aboriginal communities. But he also blamed the government for not acting on legislation that came into force in 1992 and introduced measures to deal with the inequity.

This is 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 he has written a special report to Parliament. The only other similar report 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.

When asked about the findings during Question Period in the House of Commons, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the Conservative government has taken a "balanced approach" by investing in crime prevention programs and creating a National Crime Prevention Centre. In addition, Mr. Nicholson said, the government recently invested money in aboriginal policing and a court worker program designed to assist accused people of aboriginal descent.

Mr. Sapers said it would be unfair to say the government has done nothing. "But the effort is just unequal to the challenge and unequal to the need."

Money was allocated in 2000 to build additional healing lodges to divert aboriginal offenders out of penitentiaries, but just one of the lodges was constructed and the funds were eventually redirected, says the report. As a result, there are just 68 beds for inmates at healing lodges across the country.

First nations, Métis and Inuit offenders are less likely to get parole than other inmates, and they are more likely to serve their sentence in more restricted conditions like segregated units, Mr. Sapers said. They are also overrepresented in maximum security populations and they are more likely to see their parole revoked, often for administrative reasons rather than criminal violations.

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Among other things, Mr. Sapers called upon the government to appoint a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections, to allow more aboriginal communities to take over the care and custody of their own offenders, to create more healing lodges, and to reduce the red tape that prevents aboriginal offenders from being released back into their own communities.

In more than two decades, he said, there have been no new significant investments at the community level for aboriginal offenders, and there has been "no progress in closing the gaps in correctional outcomes between aboriginal and non-aboriginal inmates."

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