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Prison cellHÈlËne VallÈe/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says first nations children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. Shocking indeed, but true. In its Throne Speech, the Harper government renewed its commitment to aboriginals. Yet, during the federal election campaign, there was hardly a mention by any party leader of the plight of first nations peoples and the destitute social and economic conditions in which they continue to live.

Federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers, in his 2009 report, says that the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal offenders continues to grow and that the rate for aboriginal incarceration in 2008 was nine times the national average. This gap will widen and these numbers will increase with the Harper government's proposed crime bill. The ugly reality is that aboriginals will be especially hard hit by this legislation.

There are 13,000 federal offenders in custody and a similar number out in the community on some form of conditional release. These statistics include aboriginal offenders. In 2007/2008, according to Statistics Canada, aboriginal adults accounted for 22 per cent of admissions to sentenced custody while representing only 3 per cent of the Canadian population. More than one in five new admissions to federal corrections is now a person of aboriginal descent. Among women offenders, the overrepresentation is even more dramatic - one in three federally sentenced women is aboriginal.

Yet, the federal government spends just 2 per cent of its federal prison budget, which exceeds $2-billion a year, on aboriginal programs. In some parts of the country, aboriginals are vastly overrepresented in certain charges. And there are no signs, as revealed by Mr. Sapers, that these dreadful statistics are abating. From an incarceration point of view, aboriginals are rapidly approaching the same status as many blacks, Hispanics and impoverished whites in the United States in that the criminal justice system in that country preys on the socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged.

The Harper government says it's committed to making aboriginals full members of the national economy. But its policy, albeit short on details and commitment, must encompass a framework that addresses the issue of incarceration. Anything less flies in the face of social justice and a fair and progressive criminal justice system.

That said, an independent report commissioned by the Office of the Correctional Investigator and released in 2009 confirmed that the situation of aboriginal offenders under federal sentence remains unacceptable. The Mann report, authored by Michelle Mann and titled Good Intentions, Disappointing Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections, documents the fact that correctional outcomes for aboriginal offenders continue to lag significantly behind those of non-aboriginal offenders on almost every indicator.

Aboriginal offenders tend to be released later in their sentences (lower parole grant rates), are overrepresented in segregation populations, are more likely to have served previous youth and/or adult sentences, are more often held to the expiry of their sentence, are classified as more likely to reoffend and have their conditional release revoked more often and are classified as higher risk and higher need.

The report does acknowledge that many of the circumstances contributing to high rates of aboriginal incarceration - poverty, social exclusion, substance abuse and discrimination - go well beyond the capacity of Correctional Service Canada to address in isolation. Although CSC doesn't have control over the number of aboriginal offenders sentenced by the courts, as the Mann report makes clear, it has exclusive jurisdiction and a legal mandate to ensure aboriginal people under federal sentence are given every opportunity to access culturally sensitive programming and safely return to their communities. On both points, the report found that the federal correctional service is not doing all it can for aboriginal offenders and their communities.

To address some of these problems and ensure CSC's legal mandate is met, the correctional investigator again called for the appointment of a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections to the CSC's executive committee. This call was dismissed outright by former public safety minister Peter Van Loan.

More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court of Canada established what's known as the Gladue Court. The landmark ruling called on judges to exercise discretion and be sensitive to the historical plight of aboriginal people. The overall response by the judiciary to that ruling, as evident by the growing incarceration rate of aboriginals, has been a sporadic application, varying from one extreme to the other, depending on jurisdiction.

Three years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Canada's aboriginals for this country's despicable role in the Indian residential school system, a racist program aimed at assimilation and, to this day, largely responsible for the high rate of aboriginal incarceration. His apology at the time seemed genuine. Was it?

The consequences of failing to address this great injustice speak for themselves. Some experts say this situation will blow up in our faces, that it's only a matter of time. Are we up for this huge challenge? Doing nothing will simply reinforce the harsh reality that most Canadians are "more equal than others."

Emile Therien, a former president of the Canada Safety Council, is a volunteer at the John Howard Society.

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