Give Indigenous people more control, resources to address over-incarceration, says correctional investigator

Canada's correctional investigator is calling on the federal government and the Correctional Service to work on handing responsibility, control and resources to Indigenous communities to "address the enormity of the challenge of Indigenous over-incarceration."

Ivan Zinger's new report says 'heavy lifting has hardly begun' on TRC calls to action in corrections

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger released his 2017-2018 annual report on Tuesday. (CBC)

Canada's correctional investigator is calling on the federal government and the Correctional Service to work on handing responsibility, control and resources to Indigenous communities to "address the enormity of the challenge of Indigenous over-incarceration."

"Loosening the levers and instruments of correctional (some might say) colonial control is consistent with the path toward reconciliation between Canada and its First Nations," states Ivan Zinger in his annual report released on Tuesday.

"Of course, devolution of correctional power will only happen if there is courageous and visionary leadership at the top of the Correctional Service – a vision and commitment that must be duly supported and directed by the Government of Canada."

The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada's prisons has reached new highs, according to the report.

Overall, Indigenous people now represent 28 per cent of the federally sentenced prison population. That number has reached 40 per cent for federally sentenced women, a figure the report calls "distressing." Indigenous people account for roughly five per cent of the population of Canada.

The report also calls for the creation of a deputy commissioner level position for Indigenous Affairs in the Correctional Service of Canada, "to ensure that corporate attention and accountability remains focused on Indigenous issues in federal corrections."

'Little practical progress' in responding to TRC 

It's been nearly three years since the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was issued, the culmination of six years of work to document and report the impact and legacy of the residential school system in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) greets Justice Murray Sinclair at the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada's residential school system, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The final report included 94 calls to action to work toward reconciliation, 18 of them specifically about Justice issues.

When it comes to the calls specific to federal corrections, Zinger's report stated "little practical progress has been made."

He went on to write, "Over the next decade, re-allocation of resources and delegation of control to Indigenous communities should be the stated goals of CSC's contribution to reaching the TRC's 'calls to action.'"

More urban community release options needed

One way this control of Indigenous communities could be actualized, according to the report, is through the creation of more healing lodge beds across the country.

Zinger says that despite the growing number of Indigenous people admitted to custody, the capacity at healing lodges has not kept pace. Among his many recommendations, Zinger calls for the allocation of "very significant resources" to community custody and supervision programs including the creation of more healing lodge beds, particularly in urban areas.

He also calls for an increased use of community releases, as per the existing federal legislation, with a particular focus on better supporting people who want to transition from prison into cities.

Razor wire fencing surrounding the Fraser Valley Institution for Women, a women's federal prison in Abbotsford, B.C. (Chris Corday/CBC)

His report states Indigenous people still serve more of their sentence in prison before release and in higher security settings than their non-Indigenous peers.

"These indicators and outcomes belie CSC's claim that it bears no responsibility for the morass of Indigenous over-incarceration," the report states.

"While it is true that the Correctional Service is at the receiving end of the criminal justice system, it serves no purpose to continue to deny factors that fall squarely within its remit to positively influence and change for the better."

Corrections response

In its response to the report, Correctional Service of Canada states it is committed "to address and resolve issues of mutual concern."

In regards to Indigenous people serving federal sentences, it said, "Providing effective, culturally appropriate interventions and reintegration support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders remains one of CSC's key corporate priorities."

Among those supports, CSC highlights that it has created seven intervention centres specifically designed for Indigenous people, as well as an employment training program.

It also says there have been increases in Indigenous community support positions made within the department through the 2017 federal budget.

It also says it has "strengthened" the funding arrangement for Indigenous community-managed healing lodges. 

In response to Zinger's call for CSC to create a deputy commissioner level position for Indigenous Affairs, the department did not commit to making this change.

"The current structure ensures that CSC applies a consistent approach at the national, regional and institutional levels to support the healing of Indigenous offenders and their safe transition to the community," it said in its response.