“The current state of over-representation of Aboriginal women in federal corrections is nothing short of a crisis.” This rebuke is not from a politician or civil society group, but directly from a report commissioned by the Department of Public Safety itself. Entitled, “Marginalized,” it underscores the abject failure of the Conservative government’s simplistic and outdated “tough on crime” approach, warning that it, “will only serve to further increase the numbers and worsen the already staggering injustice experienced by Aboriginal peoples as a whole.”
Canadians need to understand the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and the deleterious effects it has had on mental health, addictions, parenting and therefore the resulting interaction of Aboriginal people with the justice system.
While only four per cent of the Canadian population, Aboriginal people make up 20 per cent of the prison population. Even more shocking, one in three women in federal penitentiaries is Aboriginal, a number that has increased by nearly 90 per cent over the last 10 years. Despite only representing six per cent of the female youth population in Canada, almost half (44 per cent) of the female youth in custody are Indigenous.
Canada needs policies and programs that ensure that youth who make a mistake don’t end up in and out of the prison system, sentenced to a life of crime. So many young aboriginal offenders tell the same story: “The first time that they ever felt they belonged was when they joined a gang” or that “The first time they’d ever been told they were good at something was shoplifting.”
Appallingly, the Conservatives have slashed $35.6 million (20 per cent) of federal funding for youth justice programs to supervise and rehabilitate young offenders. And despite the success of the Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS), created specifically to respond to the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in our justice system, both as offenders and as victims, this government slashed its funding in half from $20.8 million in 2011 to $10.3 million in 2012.
In addition, the Correctional Investigator has told us that a modest estimate of female offenders suffering from mental health issues is 50 per cent. The reality is that the level of mental illness inside the system is growing and prison is not an appropriate mental health strategy. With an annual cost of keeping a single inmate in federal prison of $117,000, it is not only ineffective, but much too expensive.
Unfortunately, the Conservative response has been the opposite of what common sense and evidence tells us is needed. They continue to pursue sentencing changes that will dramatically increase prison populations, and disproportionately affect aboriginal people.
Aboriginal peoples are a tremendous resource and potential source of future prosperity for all Canadians. But the systemic barriers they face created by the historic injustices of the Indian Act and residential schools have meant unacceptable gaps in outcomes for health, education, housing, and access to basic rights, including adequate food and safe, clean, drinkable water. Addressing these deep-seeded problems is the key to economic opportunity – but also to staying out of jail. This isn’t an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem. All Canadians must realize that it is in our interests — in terms of public safety, human rights, cost and untapped human potential — to heed the call of this report and take “aggressive action” to deal with this national disgrace.
MP, St. Paul’s
Liberal Critic for Aboriginal Affairs