Canada’s correctional investigator says the federal prison system continues to resist changes aimed at reducing the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous people.
“For many years now, my office has been sounding the alarm,” said Ivan Zinger, the head of the Office of the Correctional Investigator at a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday. “The discriminatory treatment of Indigenous persons in federal custody was among the first set of issues raised by my office when it was created 50 years ago. In the decades that follow, my office has issued more than 70 recommendations specific to Indigenous corrections. Sadly, most of these calls have gone unanswered.”
Zinger released his annual report this week which finds Indigenous people make up an astonishing 32 per cent of Canada’s prison population in spite of accounting for about five per cent of the general population.
The annual report contains an update to Spirit Matters: A Roadmap for the Reform of Indigenous Corrections in Canada document first published in 2013.
“In the decade since Spirit Matters was released, it is astonishing that the rate of Indigenous over-representation has increased unabated,” Zinger wrote in the report. “Canada’s correctional population is becoming disturbingly and unconscionably Indigenized.
“On nearly every measure of correctional performance – time spent behind bars before first release, placements in maximum-security institutions, involvement in use of force, recidivism and revocation rates, suicide and self-injury, placement in restrictive confinement units – the correctional system seems to perpetuate conditions of disadvantage and discrimination for Indigenous people.”
The report finds that correctional services continue to resist using Indigenous-run healing lodges as an alternative to standard incarceration, undervalue and underutilize elders as staff in the system and fails to employ enough Indigenous staff overall, particularly in leadership positions.
Zinger said the failure to properly fund Indigenous-run healing lodges is a missed opportunity.
“We find it very upsetting that Correctional Services Canada does not fund these Section 81 agreements appropriately,” he said. “They do it at a discount. At a 40 per cent discount.”
Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron said it is appalling Elders do not receive the same benefits as other corrections staff including sick days, vacation pay, pension, health or even basic job security.
“The differential treatment of Elders that was also documented in the report was particularly concerning,” she said. “Canada must respect its own laws on human rights and employment standards. Under the corrections and conditional release act elders are guaranteed the same status as chaplains and other religious leaders and it’s not acceptable for potential violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act or the Canada Labour Code to continue.”
Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Quebec-Labrador Ghislain Picard added correctional services continues to ignore input from Indigenous stakeholders that would make the system better.
“Often times we find ourselves on the sidelines,” he said “We’re just really looking over to decisions that are made about our peoples and their wellbeing and to me that’s unacceptable. So, that level of discourse and engagement has to be brought up.”
In a release, Minister of Public Safety Dominic LeBlanc said engaging Indigenous communities is essential to addressing Indigenous over representation in the system and as part of this work a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections was appointed earlier this year.
“Through our Indigenous Community Corrections Initiative, we are working with Indigenous organizations to provide alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous offenders while keeping communities safe,” Leblanc said in the release. “I look forward to working with CSC, and with the Correctional Investigator and his team to ensure Canada’s corrections system continues to protect public safety while supporting the rehabilitation of offenders.”
According to news release by Anne Kelly, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, they’re working on the issue.
“We are very attuned to the issue of overrepresentation and continue to make efforts to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples. We are doing so in partnership with Indigenous peoples and communities, and this continues to be a focus of our first-ever Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections, who was appointed earlier this year.
The deputy commissioner of Indigenous corrections is Kathy Neil. She started the position in May. APTN News requested an interview but according to spokespeople at corrections, they were “unable to accommodate an interview request at this time.”