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Former correctional investigator of Canada Howard Sapers pictured on Nov. 22, 2016, in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A decade ago, when Howard Sapers served as the country’s correctional investigator, he sounded the alarm about the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the country’s federal prisons.

Indigenous people in Canada made up just 4 per cent of the population, Mr. Sapers said in 2013, but nearly one in four prisoners in federal institutions at the time were Métis, Inuit or First Nations. If the problem isn’t addressed, he warned then, “a critical situation is just going to get worse.”

Ten years later, Ivan Zinger, the current correctional investigator, released a report that shows Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in the federal correctional system, accounting for 28 per cent of all federally sentenced individuals and nearly one-third of all individuals in custody. Over the past decade, he said, the total Indigenous offender population has increased by 41 per cent.

Mr. Zinger said the “steady and unabated increase in the disproportionate representation of Indigenous peoples under federal sentence is nothing short of a national travesty and remains one of Canada’s most pressing human rights challenges.”

Mr. Sapers, responding to the report, said the numbers show that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and other justice agencies are “failing.”

“It’s a dramatic policy failure,” he said.

Mr. Sapers said the proportion of Indigenous prisoners has risen despite the fact that there has been good guidance and advice along the way, such as the recommendations contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, published in 2015, that deal directly with criminal justice and conditions that lead people to being in conflict with the law.

“What has always struck me is that there’s a big gap between what’s said and what’s done,” he said.

Canadian prisons ‘disturbingly and unconscionably Indigenized’, corrections watchdog says

“When it comes to dealing with Indigenous overrepresentation in the Canadian criminal-justice system, that gap is huge. So, it’s time to actually take overrepresentation seriously and stop dismissing it in some of the subtle and some of the overt ways that it gets dismissed.”

When Mr. Sapers’s office released a special report on “Spirit Matters” in 2013, it marked the second time since the creation of the Office of the Correctional Investigator that a situation was deemed so urgent that a special report was sent to Parliament.

Asked about the increasing problem of overrepresentation of incarcerated Indigenous people, Mr. Sapers said “sadly it’s no surprise.”

At a policy level, he said, the issue needs to be taken seriously by all levels of government.

“This is not a problem of the Correctional Service of Canada’s making or even of Public Safety Canada’s making but they certainly, both that department and that agency, have some operational and policy levers that they could pull,” he said.

Mr. Sapers said the issue is “residue of colonialism and blatantly discriminatory policies, and the systemic bias that continues to exist in many of our public institutions, including the administration of justice.”

This “toxic mix” combines to create issues including economic and social inequity, intergenerational trauma and individual vulnerability, he said.

As for solutions, Mr. Sapers said there needs to be a “serious, ongoing discussion at the federal, provincial, territorial level. By serious discussion, I don’t just mean putting it on the agenda. I mean, actually setting benchmarks and doing things.”

In response to Mr. Zinger’s recent report, CSC commissioner Anne Kelly said in a statement that the service is “very attuned to the issue of overrepresentation and continues to make efforts to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples.”

The issue remains a focus of the first-ever deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections, who was appointed earlier this year, she added. In March, the CSC announced Kathy Neil would assume the position on May 1.

Mr. Sapers said he recommended the creation of the position with exclusive responsibility for Indigenous corrections about 15 years ago. “Unbelievably, there wasn’t one,” he said.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls had also made such a recommendation.

The recommendation was ignored until last year when the commissioner received instructions to do so in a mandate letter from then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino, Mr. Sapers said.

“It shouldn’t have taken a decade and a half to get there,” he said.

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