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For much of the past decade, the number of people in Canadian jails compared with the population as a whole has been stable or dropping. In 2018, the rate of adult incarceration fell for the fifth straight year, according to Statistics Canada.

But hidden in that development is a troubling trend: While the overall rate of incarceration is going in the right direction, the percentage of prison inmates who are of Indigenous origin continues to rise.

Indigenous people, who represent about 5 per cent of Canada’s population, now make up 30 per cent of the populations in federal prisons. Four years ago, the number was 25 per cent.

“On this trajectory, the pace is now set for Indigenous people to comprise 33 per cent of the total federal inmate population in the next three years,” Ivan Zinger, the federal prisons ombudsman, said this week.

While Mr. Zinger can only speak for federal prisons, which hold people sentenced to terms of two years or more, the trend is a general one. The percentage of Indigenous people in provincial or territorial jails rose from 21 per cent to 30 per cent between 2008 and 2018, according to Statscan.

All of which means that in recent years, a barometer of the quality of life among Canada’s Indigenous peoples has been getting worse, not better.

And this, as Mr. Zinger said this week, is “despite findings of Royal Commissions and National Inquiries, intervention of the courts, [and] promises and commitments of previous and current political leaders.”

Mr. Zinger puts some of the blame on Correctional Service Canada, the agency that operates federal prisons.

His office has found that Indigenous inmates are overrepresented in federal maximum-security prisons, which offer the least in the way of rehabilitation. As well, they are far more likely to wind up in solitary confinement, and they tend to serve longer periods behind bars before being granted parole than non-Indigenous inmates.

When they are finally released, they are so poorly prepared that they tend to reoffend at much higher rates than non-Indigenous parolees. In the Prairie provinces, the rate of Indigenous recidivism is as high as 70 per cent.

The CSC is clearly failing at its mandate to give Indigenous men and women an equal shot at rehabilitation. Mr. Zinger is right to say the agency needs to fix this continuing human-rights issue. And yes, that will involve government spending more money on providing better services to inmates.

But as critical as improvements to federal prison methods might be, the real work to lower the incarceration rate of Indigenous people has to begin long before the justice system comes into play.

Many Indigenous people in Canada are still struggling with the intergenerational trauma of the residential school system and the child-welfare removals of the Sixties Scoop. They are more likely to live in poverty, to be socially isolated and to be unemployed than their non-Indigenous peers.

As well, there is a serious and persistent education gap, especially for people living on First Nations reserves. In 2011, just 68 per cent of Indigenous people aged 35 to 44 had a high-school degree, compared with 89 per cent of non-Indigenous adults the same age.

There is evidence, based on modelling by Statistics Canada, that even a small reduction in the education gap would lead to fewer Indigenous people coming into contact with the justice system. The same research shows why reducing the gap has to be done quickly.

Canada’s Indigenous population is the fastest-growing cohort in the country. It is getting younger, in other words, and one of the key indicators of whether a person becomes involved in crime is age. Older people are less likely to end up in handcuffs than young ones.

The Indigenous population is booming and yet, in spite of progress in some provinces, the education gap isn’t closing fast enough, and not enough is being done to ensure young Indigenous people will get an equal shot at success.

There will be no one answer; governments should ask themselves what is going on, and what they need to do to fix a bad situation.

Because one thing is clear: A high and rising Indigenous incarceration rate is proof that Canada still has a long way to go toward its stated goal of meaningful reconciliation.