Indigenous people represent more than 30 per cent of prisoners in federal custody, a new high, the Correctional Investigator said Tuesday as he urged action, including on a long-standing request for the creation of a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections.
In findings released Tuesday, Ivan Zinger said the number of Indigenous people federally sentenced has steadily increased for decades, adding that custody rates have accelerated in recent years despite an overall drop in the inmate population.
The office of the Correctional Investigator is the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders and is designed to provide oversight of the Correctional Service of Canada through impartial investigation of individual and system concerns.
Since April, 2010, Dr. Zinger said the Indigenous inmate population has increased by 43 per cent, while the number of non-Indigenous prisoners has declined by 14 per cent over the same period.
Dr. Zinger also delivered a blunt critique of the federal corrections service, suggesting it seems impervious to change and unresponsive of the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Zinger said the pace has now been set for Indigenous people to make up 33 per cent of the federal inmate population in the next three years.
The Correctional Investigator’s office has seen a steady increase in the numbers year over year no matter which government is in power, he said.
Dr. Zinger also pointed to calls to action to address the issue by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which documented the impacts of Canada’s residential-school legacy, as well as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
NDP public safety critic Jack Harris said Tuesday that the numbers are “appalling,” adding the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada remains a significant human-rights issue and a failure of governments, including the current one.
Mr. Harris said the fact that the numbers are getting worse despite multiple reports from the Correctional Investigator’s office on the matter is an indication of failure to fix the problem.
Dr. Zinger said Tuesday that the specific call for the creation of a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections was first made more than a decade ago. He also called for other measures Tuesday, including increased access and availability to culturally relevant programming for prisoners and an enhanced role of Indigenous elders.
In response to Dr. Zinger’s findings, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair called the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in correctional institutions an “unacceptable situation that we are working very hard to address.”
Reconciliation remains a crucial priority for the government, said Jordan Crosby, the director of parliamentary affairs for Mr. Blair’s office, and he listed a number of measures designed to improve corrections, including a $120-million investment to support the reintegration of previously incarcerated Indigenous people.
Independent Senator Kim Pate, the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said in an interview Tuesday she shares the Correctional Investigator’s concerns that the overrepresentation of Indigenous people is a “travesty,” as well as a blight on Canada’s reputation.
It is well past time to take meaningful action on the issue rather than make minor attempts to address it, Ms. Pate said.
The federal Conservatives declined to comment on the investigator’s report on Tuesday.