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There seem to be few people who think the answer to solving the abysmally high incarceration rate for aboriginals is to make it easier to throw them in jail and keep them longer. But that's what many believe the federal Conservative government is intent on doing.

Last week, B.C.'s provincial health officer, Perry Kendall, added his voice to a burgeoning group of public officials worried about the increasing role that prisons are playing in the lives of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. His report suggested that the Safe Streets and Communities Act – passed last year – will only intensify the problem.

A few weeks before him, Howard Sapers, Canada's prison watchdog, was critical of Ottawa for doing little to address a situation he said continues to get worse. In the past five years alone, the population of aboriginal inmates in federal penitentiaries increased by 43 per cent. Today, aboriginal people make up 23 per cent of all inmates in federal institutions despite representing just 4 per cent of Canada's population.

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Before Mr. Sapers, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci issued a report that suggested Ontario's justice system is in crisis as it concerns the province's First Nations community. He found that aboriginal people are subjected to systemic racism in the courts, prison and jury process.

In Saskatchewan, which has the highest native incarceration rate in the country, the person who's been handed the job of trying to change this grim picture told the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that we aren't going to "arrest our way" out of it.

Dale McFee, former police chief in Prince Albert and now deputy minister of corrections and policing in Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice, is trying to introduce more holistic techniques in an attempt to reverse this situation. Aboriginal people, who represent 11 per cent of Saskatchewan's population, have made up as much as 80 per cent of the jail population in recent years. Mr. McFee's approach means pouring resources into things such as abuse counselling and addressing poverty and cultural issues before they lead to aberrant behaviour.

But the federal Conservatives are allergic to words such as holistic, especially as it pertains to matters of crime and punishment. In fact, it's possible that the Conservatives are going to make what's already a national disgrace into an international embarrassment.

The Safe Streets Act introduced new mandatory minimum sentences for some offences and increases existing minimum penalties in other areas. It also makes changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act to allow the courts to keep young people in custody while awaiting sentencing. It's the contention of Dr. Kendall and others that the act also undermines a section of the Criminal Code that asks judges to consider all possible options for sentencing before choosing prison, especially for aboriginal people.

And this, despite a plethora of studies that have shown that prison and longer sentences don't act as deterrents or reduce the likelihood that a person will reoffend. In fact, studies have demonstrated that more prison time can actually increase crime.

Most of us are familiar with the litany of reasons why our First Nations people end up in jail. They're societal, historical and deep rooted in scope. They link to poor health, poor education and the less visible, but no less damaging, influences of colonialism and racism.

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In B.C., aboriginal people represent about 5 per cent of the general population but nearly a quarter of the admissions to the province's correctional centres. Dr. Kendall believes this statistic has the potential to become much worse.

Incarceration rates are highest among those 20 to 34. Dr. Kendall reasonably presumes that the more people you have in that demographic, the greater the likelihood of a higher crime rate. In B.C.'s aboriginal population, there's an abnormally large number of people in the under 19 group. As this cohort moves into the 20-to-34 category, there's the real risk that this will increase the already unacceptable overrepresentation in the adult criminal justice system.

Dr. Kendall is urging the federal government to revoke or amend those sections of the Safe Streets Act that he and others believe will only exacerbate an already terrible condition. Rather than locking up aboriginal people and throwing away the key, Dr. Kendall believes we'd be better off providing more resources for rehabilitation and setting off in the more enlightened direction that Saskatchewan has taken than in building more space in our prisons.

It's worth a try. Clearly the approach we've taken until now isn't working.

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