Federal response to aboriginal corrections report 'dismissive'

The Correctional Service of Canada has rejected the recommendation by the federal prison watchdog to appoint a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections following a scathing report pointing out the dramatic increase of Aboriginal Canadians in federal prison.

CSC rejects recommendation to appoint a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections

Howard Sapers, Canada's prison watchdog, says the Correctional Service of Canada was 'very dismissive' in its reponse to a report calling attention to the dramatic increase of Canada's Aboriginal Peoples in federal prison. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Correctional Service of Canada was "very dismissive" in its response to a report sounding the alarm to the dramatic increase of Aboriginal Peoples in federal prison, tabled in Parliament this week, Canada's prison watchdog says.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator for Canada, told host Evan Solomon he was "hopeful" he would receive a "fulsome response" that would deal directly with the recommendations he made in the report.

Instead, "what I found is that it's very dismissive. It in no way addresses the urgency of the situation," Sapers said.

The report found there was nearly a 40 per cent increase in the incarcerated aboriginal population between 2001-02 and 2010-11.

While Aboriginal Peoples comprise just four per cent of Canada's population, they make up 23 per cent of the nation's federal prison inmate population, the report found. In other words, the report shows, nearly one in four prison inmates is Métis, Inuit or First Nations.

"If you read through CSC's response you're left with the impression that there's not really much of a problem and whatever issues there may be, they are dealing with [them]," Sapers said.

The report, tabled in the House of Commons Thursday morning, is only the second special report written by the investigator since the office's creation 40 years ago.

Sapers said he submitted the report to CSC last October but did not receive a response until late Thursday evening. Despite "the long delay," Sapers said, he did not find CSC's response to be "a thoughtful or complete response."

10 recommendations

The report calls on corrections officials to implement a list of 10 specific recommendations to address the vast over–representation of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada's federal prison.

In its reponse, the CSC maintains it is "dedicated to continuing to address the needs of aboriginal offenders in the federal correctional system and to ensuring that they can work toward rehabilitation in an inclusive and culturally sensitive environment."

But according to Sapers, "each and every one of the recommendations is either disagreed with or the response is simply to reinforce what the CSC is already doing."

'The creation of an additional Deputy Commissioner position would add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost to the current governance structure'— The Correctional Service of Canada

One of the report's main recommendation calls on the CSC to appoint a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections.

In its response, the CSC said "the creation of an additional Deputy Commissioner position would add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost to the current governance structure."

"The CSC has invested resources in more direct frontline operational programs and interventions designed to maximize the capacity of the field, regions, and sectors to collectively address the various challenges of Aboriginal corrections."

According to Sapers, the CSC's response does not meet the urgency of the matter.

"One of the reasons why we brought it to the attention of Parliament in a special report is because there is an urgent need for change," Sapers said. "The status quo is failing us."

'Disappointing' answers

The prison watchdog said he will raise the matter directly with Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, but that given their response, he will also bring this to the attention of the minister in charge in the coming days.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews did not address the recommendations included in Sapers's report, but said "the only identifiable group that our tough on crime agenda targets are criminals."

"Aboriginal Canadians are more likely to be victims of crime. We are taking action to ensure that all Canadian communities are protected," the spokesperson said in a written statement.

While Toews did not answer any questions about the report during question period on Thursday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper echoed those remarks.

"It is important to note that prisoners are people who have been found guilty of criminal offences by independent court," Harper said.

"The reality is that, unfortunately, Aboriginal People are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than other Canadians. That is why, among other measures, we are taking our responsibility to protect Canadian society seriously," Harper told the Commons.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said the prime minister's response was "one of the most disappointing" things he's ever heard from Harper.

"It's not alright, in a free and democratic society, to have that sort of disproportionate number of people from one community in prison," Mulcair told reporters after question period.

Getting to the source of the problem will require "a little bit of understanding and some sympathy," something the NDP leader said was "sorely lacking" in Harper's answers in the Commons.

On Monday, Toews committed to funding policing agreements with First Nations communities under the First Nations Policing Program for the next five years.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator is an impartial body that conducts investigations into how correctional services treats offenders in its care. Sapers, in his third consecutive term,  has served in the post since 2004.