On Nov. 1, Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, reported that this country’s justice system continues to incarcerate Indigenous women at alarming rates – with no indication that this will change.
Last year, he found that 32 per cent of all people in custody are First Nations, Métis or Inuit, setting a new historic high; as of May, a staggering half of all female inmates were Indigenous women.
This is a human-rights embarrassment.
This horrific report is another pathetic reminder of Canadian governments’ continued failure to follow through on detailed reports and recommendations – from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, to the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice. These two exhaustive investigations provided meticulous, community-led roadmaps on how to reverse Canada’s genocidal policies and start improving lives – but their meaty findings have been consistently ignored. Indeed, not one of the MMIWG inquiry’s calls have been implemented, and according to the Yellowhead Institute’s most recent report, barely a dozen of the TRC’s 94 recommendations are now reality, and those that have passed have been relatively low-hanging fruit (for instance, the establishment of Sept. 30 as a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation).
So now is the time to start listening. Fortunately, a focused report written by Sen. Kim Pate earlier this year provides an excellent starting point, by calling for the reversal of the convictions of 12 Indigenous women who have been incarcerated. The report argues that those women have been victim to overzealousness on the part of a court system that didn’t consider their lived experience. It will be particularly disappointing if our leaders ignore this one.
Ms. Pate has known all 12 women for decades – one for 40 years. Some are out of jail, one has died and one more is quite ill. And in each of the 12 cases, Ms. Pate points out, the courts failed to apply Section 718.2 (e) of the Criminal Code, which requires consideration of an Indigenous person’s background when weighing sentencing.
That’s an important detail, because all of the women have experienced genocidal violence in one form or another – from early institutionalization to residential school or intergenerational trauma associated with the schools, to being violently removed from the land, away from their families, their communities and children.
This is yet another legacy of Canada’s colonial policies – which some in this country continue to deny.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, two sisters who were convicted of life in prison for killing a man who was the maintenance worker at their residential school, are among the 12 women. But after their case was picked up by the Innocence Project, with the support of the wrongfully convicted David Milgaard, Justice Minister David Lametti ordered an investigation into the Saulteaux sisters’ conviction in June.
The sisters now have hope. However, that’s not necessarily the case for the other women on the list, or for other Indigenous women, who remain one of Canada’s most vulnerable groups.
“Half of the women serving life sentences or long sentences, almost all are self-defense or defense of others. They were deputized to protect themselves. When they were being victimized, the state wasn’t there to assist them. So then when they do, the state swoops in and criminalizes them,” Ms. Pate told me. “If these women didn’t fight back, they’d be dead. It is that simple.”
As Dr. Zinger reminded us, jailed Indigenous peoples face “terrible outcomes.” They are more likely to self-harm, die by suicide, be labelled gang members and spend more time in prison for their convictions. They are overrepresented in maximum security prisons and in “structured intervention units” – an update to segregation techniques.
This is a human-rights emergency. Canadian politicians need to find the courage to do what is right: re-examine the 12 cases Ms. Pate highlighted, and amend Bill C-5 to allow a judge to use discretion to not impose mandatory minimum sentences, since they disproportionately affect Indigenous and Black Peoples.
Every minister has reconciliation in their mandate letter, and the Prime Minister has widely declared that he is committed to it. Yet the hard work that needs to be done urgently consistently gets filed away for another day.
Indigenous sovereignty is needed. Communities know what needs to be done: They need proper housing, clean-water infrastructure, access to health care, high-quality education and an end to the government’s practice of taking kids away from families and sending them to foster care.
These are the social determinants of health that, as everyone in public health will tell you, will help reduce disparities if addressed. If that happens, perhaps one day we won’t have to hear another report that produces little more than feelings of shame.