‘Institutionalized racism’ behind over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons

The “historic new highs” of Indigenous people incarcerated in Canada’s prison system comes as no surprise to Indigenous people or those who have been paying attention to the issue.

Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued his statement and a challenge earlier this month, reporting the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30 per cent.

Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief  Jerry Daniels says “institutionalized racism” is the reason the numbers keep climbing.

“We have to come in and change the culture,” says Daniels. “The culture is that police are arresting more Indigenous people.

“Police are likely charging more Indigenous people. If you’re Indigenous, you’re more likely to be charged, you’re more likely to be arrested, you’re more likely to go to jail, and you’re more likely to do more time.”

Some of the most alarming numbers can be found in Saskatchewan where 98 per cent of females in custody in that province are Indigenous.

Independent Senator Kim Pate has spent the past four decades working with and for some of the most marginalized, victimized, and imprisoned youth, men and women.

Pate says “racial and gender inequality” is the fundamental reason for what is happening in the justice system.

Pate says both the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ calls to action’ and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ calls for justice speak directly to the issue.

“They talk about, right from the very beginning, Indigenous peoples not having equal opportunities to everything from housing, education, healthcare, child welfare initiatives and supports, right through and including having more people now in the care of the state now then when we had residential schools,” she says.

Pate feels there are fewer opportunities for people who are most marginalized.

“So, Indigenous men have fewer opportunities but Indigenous women have even fewer,” says Pate who adds “part of the reason we’ve had to focus on the women and girls who have gone missing, been disappeared, been murdered, is the very same issues that contribute to them being homeless, being on the street, and also being in prison and it’s fundamentally about inequality,” says Pate.

Daniels, who represents 34 First Nations in Manitoba, feels it would be good to do an analysis between the Manitoba First Nations Police and the RCMP.

Manitoba has a First Nations Police Force that operates in six communities.

“My first thought would be that they would be much more proactive in creating the relationship with the people, understanding the individual peoples issues and needs and working to develop a more robust restorative justice strategy that includes our elders,” he says.

For Daniels, the “recognition that the system is failing” is needed immediately.

The Grand Chief believes there needs to be a “transfer of full control over the justice system” to First Nations control.

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