Two Saulteaux sisters serving life for murder are two of the record number of Indigenous women in this country’s prisons.
They are part of a new report by Canada’s Correctional Investigator that shows First Nations, Inuit and Métis females comprise nearly 50 per cent of the federal inmate population.
Ivan Zinger, the correctional investigator, said it was “a sad milestone” given Indigenous women represent less than five per cent of the total number of women in Canada.
“Surpassing the 50 per cent threshold suggests that current efforts to reverse the Indigenization of Canada’s correctional population are not having the desired effect and that much bolder and swifter reforms are required,” he said Friday.
Zinger noted the number of non-Indigenous women behind bars continues to trend downward, as does the number of women incarcerated in general.
“In the last ten years, the overall Indigenous inmate population has increased by 18.1%, whereas the non-Indigenous incarcerated population has decreased over the same period by 28.26%,” his report said.
“Over-representation of Indigenous people in correctional settings remains one of Canada’s most pressing human rights issues, and is evidence of public policy failures over successive decades as no government has been able to stop or reverse this trend,” Zinger added.
Zinger’s latest report comes the day after Nerissa Quewezance, who is from the Keeseekoose Saulteaux Nation in Saskatchewan, was granted day parole.
She and her sister, Odelia Quewezance, have served 29 years for a murder their younger cousin confessed to committing in 1993.
The case is considered a miscarriage of justice by wrongful conviction advocates who are supporting the sisters’ bids for parole and eventual release.
Odelia is expected to apply for full parole in 2022, said her lawyer James Lockyer of Toronto.
She and her sister have always maintained their innocence.
“When you consider the cases of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance and see how they’ve been kept in jail for as long as they have, it’s easy to understand why there are so many Indigenous women in our penitentiaries,” Lockyer said Friday.
Among the sisters’ supporters is Sen. Kim Pate.
“As the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry revealed, the same issues that give rise to Indigenous women being disproportionately murdered, disappeared and going missing are the issues that result in them being on the streets and the fastest growing prison population,” Pate said in a joint statement with four other female senators Friday.
The senators said Zinger’s data reveals “just how out of control is the mass incarceration of Indigenous women.”
They say the Trudeau government’s remedy – new legislation on mandatory minimum penalties (Bill C-5) – will not reduce the number of First Nation, Inuit and Métis women in federal prisons without the amendments the female senators have suggested.
“Bill S-213 would allow judges to do their job and take into account the reality of systemic racism, and exercise structured discretion to not impose mandatory minimum penalties where doing so would result in an injustice,” their statement said.
“Current approaches to reform are failing as the rates of Indigenous women in federal prisons has skyrocketed. Almost 1 in 2 women in federal prison are now Indigenous.”
They’ve also put forward Bill S-230 to move Indigenous prisoners into the care, custody and supervision of Indigenous communities.
“We refuse to stay on the sidelines and remain silent witnesses of this broken system,” Pate said in the statement.
“It is time for bold and swift work to decolonize the prison system and decarcerate Indigenous women.”
The Elizabeth Fry Society, which supports women in conflict with the law, said Indigenous self-determination is the solution.
“The ongoing over-incarceration of Indigenous people, and in particular Indigenous women, is part of the colonial and genocidal past and present of the Canadian state,” said Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, in a statement.
“This crisis is perpetuated by socioeconomic marginalization of Indigenous women; systemic discrimination against Indigenous women in the criminal legal system; a pattern of over-policing and under-protecting Indigenous women and girls; and the criminalization of resistance to colonization and genocide.”
Meanwhile, in his mandate letter from the prime minister made public Thursday, Federal Justice Minister David Lametti was told, among other things, to focus on the over-incarceration of Indigenous Peoples.