Over-representation of Indigenous people in federal prisons reaches 'disturbing' historic high

The over-representation of Indigenous people in federal custody has reached a new historic high according to a statement released by Canada's correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, who describes the trend as “disturbing” and evidence of “entrenched imbalances.”  

Correctional investigator calls for bold and urgent actions to address increasing over-representation

Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, holds a news conference in October 2017 to discuss issues in his annual report. Zinger describes the continuing increase in over-representation of Indigenous people in federal prisons as 'disturbing' and evidence of 'entrenched imbalances.'   (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The over-representation of Indigenous people in federal custody has reached a new historic high, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Office of the Correctional Investigator. 

In the statement, Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger described the continuing trend of the increasing number and proportion of Indigenous people in federal prisons as "disturbing" and called for bold and urgent actions from corrections and government. 

Indigenous people account for roughly five per cent of the population in Canada, but when it comes to federal custody Zinger said they now account for more than 30 per cent of the federal inmate population, up from 25 per cent four years ago. 

Indigenous women now account for 42 per cent of women in federal custody. 

Zinger said despite the findings of royal commissions and national inquiries, court interventions and political promises, over the last three decades, "no government of any stripe has managed to reverse the trend of Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons."

"The Indigenization of Canada's prison population is nothing short of a national travesty," he wrote. 

Zinger calls for 'dramatic changes' in corrections 

There are many layers of historical and contemporary factors at play when it comes to understanding why Indigenous people may be more likely to be criminalized, according to Zinger. 

But once an individual comes into the custody of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), he said the service needs to accept its share of responsibility in the overrepresentation instead of recusing itself from responsibility. 

Zinger said, for example, that Indigenous people are more likely than others to be placed in maximum security institutions, serve higher proportions of their sentences behind bars before getting out on parole and are also returned to custody at much higher rates that non-Indigenous people. 

"In failing to close the outcomes gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders, the federal correctional system makes its own unique and measureable contribution to the problem of over-representation," said Zinger in the release. 

Zinger said overall there's been a decline in the number of people in prisons but that since April 2010 the Indigenous population in prisons has increased by 43.4 per cent. In comparison, the non-Indigenous prison population has declined in that same time period by 13.7 per cent. 

Zinger is now calling on CSC to make "dramatic changes" to help reduce the over-representation and for the federal government to take a leadership role in directing those changes. 

'Working very hard to address' over-representation, say feds

CBC reached out to CSC for comment, and was passed on to Public Safety Canada.

Jordan Crosby, director of parliamentary affairs for the ministry, said in an emailed statement, "we know there's much more work to do."

"The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in correctional institutions is an unacceptable situation that we are working very hard to address."

Crosby said several actions have been taken by government in the past four years to address the situation including legislative changes that are meant to streamline the bail system, investments to support reintegration of previously-incarcerated Indigenous people and the opening of a new healing lodge in Winnipeg. 

He also mentioned government commitments to expand diversion programs and the plan to introduce legislation to implement the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

'Indigenous people aren't the problem'

Patricia Barkaskas, director of the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in Vancouver, said the continued trend of increasing over-representation is not surprising. 

In her view, Zinger's newly released figures are evidence that "the Canadian state continues to ignore its role in criminalizing Indigenous Peoples and creating this situation and not addressing it.

"Indigenous people aren't the problem, it's the system. It's Canada's colonial system," she said.

She said government and institutions often point to the Gladue ruling as a way to remedy over-representation by taking into consideration the influence of things such as residential schools, the Sixties Scoop or child welfare system on Indigenous offenders, but said it's not being implemented properly and in some cases isn't being applied at all.