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The extent of incarceration of Indigenous people in Canada and the experience of prisoners in federal penitentiaries has come into sharper focus in recent weeks after The Globe and Mail reported that Indigenous women, for the first time, accounted for half of the female population in prison.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

The creation of a deputy commissioner of Indigenous corrections is long overdue, says Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who has ordered Correctional Service Canada to establish the position amid systemic racism and high incarceration rates of Indigenous people in federal prisons.

In a letter to CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly, Mr. Mendicino said his mandate to the agency is a direct response to a call for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

In the letter, Mr. Mendicino said the role will “ensure appropriate attention and accountability towards Indigenous issues in the correctional system, address the overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders (especially women) and help CSC implement the many other calls for justice that fall within their purview.”

The extent of incarceration of Indigenous people in Canada and the experience of prisoners in federal penitentiaries has come into sharper focus in recent weeks after The Globe and Mail reported that Indigenous women, for the first time, accounted for half of the female population in prison. Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger called the news both “shocking and shameful.”

In addition, the federal Auditor-General released findings Tuesday about systemic barriers at the CSC, including that a majority of offenders were released on parole before the end of their sentences, but that Indigenous and Black offenders remained in custody longer and at higher levels of security.

In a recent interview, Mr. Mendicino said that the deputy commissioner role needs to be created to accelerate reforms necessary within the federal correctional system, including to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. He also said those already in the system must be treated in a manner that is consistent with principles of reconciliation.

“To put it bluntly, it is unacceptable that there is such a shockingly high overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples relative to their percentage of the general population,” he said, as he described the issue as a stubborn byproduct of systemic inequities that have plagued the justice system for too long.

“To my mind, this work is urgent. It is long overdue.”

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Mr. Mendicino said that it is his expectation the CSC will hit the ground running to fulfill its new mandate. In his directive, the minister called, among other measures, for the agency to support the government’s work to address systemic racism and the overrepresentation of Black and racialized Canadians and Indigenous peoples in the justice system.

Marion Buller, who was appointed the first woman First Nations judge in B.C. in 1994 and who served as the chief commissioner for the MMIWG, said she also hopes CSC’s Commissioner will make the appointment of a deputy commissioner a high priority.

Dr. Zinger said Wednesday that his office has called for this position nearly a dozen times over the last 20 years and it has also been recommended by parliamentary committees. He said the fact Mr. Mendicino has mandated Ms. Kelly to create this role should be the “impetus to finally implement this long overdue measure.”

“Having a dedicated Indigenous voice at the most senior decision-making table within the Correctional Service of Canada is key to addressing overrepresentation and disparate outcomes for Indigenous people behind bars,” he said.

After the release of the Auditor-General’s report on Tuesday, Dr. Zinger told The Globe that Mr. Mendicino and his department should expressly direct the prison agency and manage it to ensure that there is reform, given its poor track record in addressing systemic barriers.

A spokesperson for the CSC, Esther Mailhot, said the agency it is in the process of staffing the deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections. She said this will be an important new position to support relationships with Indigenous peoples and one that reports directly to the commissioner. She also said it will help work under way in continuing programs and operations.

The disproportionate overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system is something that CSC takes seriously, Ms. Mailhot said. She added that it is a complex issue that requires collaboration, including with various levels of government and Indigenous communities.

With reports from Tom Cardoso and Patrick White in Toronto

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