Soaring aboriginal prison population a national disgrace
- Soaring aboriginal prison population a national disgrace
Watchdogs call for changes in First Nations policies and correctional strategies to deal with 'a troubling pattern that has to be broken'
BY IAN MULGREW, VANCOUVER SUNMARCH 29, 2013
Nowhere is Canada's dysfunctional relationship with aboriginal people more visible than in our courts, our jails and our prisons.
Across the country, First Nations are enormously overrepresented among prisoner populations.
Their leaders and B.C.'s top public health official on Thursday urged the federal government to quit making things worse and repeal or amend the cornerstone legislation in its so-called tough-on-crime strategy.
Health, Crime, and Doing Time: Potential Impacts of the Safe Streets and Communities Act on the Health and Well-Being of Aboriginal People in B.C., a new report by provincial officer of health Dr. Perry Kendall, says the Tory administration's approach will exacerbate what is already a crisis.
"The inherent ideological shift from prevention to punishment will adversely affect vulnerable populations in B.C., including aboriginal peoples," said deputy provincial health officer Evan Adams, a native physician.
The report is only the latest alarm being sounded about what is happening in native communities and how aboriginal people are faring generally - which is badly.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo said the government must invest more money in native communities: "It is more effective to open the door to a school in order to close the door to the jail cell."
He believes Ottawa and Victoria need to work with aboriginal communities to successfully reintegrate offenders, ending what is a revolving door for natives.
"It's a troubling pattern that has to be broken," he said.
But there are many thorny difficulties - many First Nations offenders, for instance, have fetal alcohol syndrome and addiction issues that can make them a menace in small native communities lacking appropriate resources.
There is no question, however, the situation is appalling.
Parliament's Office of the Correctional Investigator earlier this month released a similar report showing 23 per cent of the country's federal prison population was native although Métis, Inuit, or First Nations people constitute only four per cent of the general population.
In B.C., aboriginal women account for 26.4 per cent of the women in custody, according to Kendall. Native girls account for 56 per cent of juvenile females in custody.
Native youth make up only about eight per cent of the provincial juvenile cohort, he added, but 142 of the 325 juveniles in custody are aboriginal.
Three out of four of those aboriginal kids have been in government care - most have a serious mental illness or an intensive behaviour problem.
Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator, found "no new significant investments at the community level for federal aboriginal initiatives. No deputy commissioner dedicated solely to and responsible for aboriginal programs, planning, implementation and results. And worst of all, no progress in closing the large gaps in correctional outcomes between aboriginal and non-aboriginal inmates."
Indigenous peoples are sentenced to longer terms, spend more time in segregation or maximum security, are less likely to be granted parole and are more often busted for minor breaches of release conditions.
In only the second special report written by the investigator since the office's creation 40 years ago, Sapers said the marginalization of a minority through government policy "defines systemic discrimination."
That is what we are looking at. During the last 10 years the aboriginal prison population has jumped 40 per cent.
"This is racist and it is unacceptable," said Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
These two reports followed on the heels of the findings earlier this year of Frank Iacobucci, the former Supreme Court justice commissioned to examine the relationship between First Nations and the Ontario justice system. He, too, said dramatic and immediate action was needed.
There remain two solitudes in Canada in the 21st century and they are no longer the English and French-speaking enclaves of the two founding nations myth.
It is the divide between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canada.
Native people consider themselves systemically discriminated against and they or their families have firsthand experience of this oppression in their dealings with the criminal justice or child welfare systems.
They are insulted by the lack of knowledge and awareness of their culture and history shown by the authorities and most Canadians.
Inadequate police services along with the lack of social and health services only exacerbate this perspective.
The chiefs' desire to assume more control of justice matters is tied to their firm belief that they have an inherent right to self-government, and at the very least they should be involved in developing solutions to the problems besetting their communities.
Pick your cause - colonialism, the legacy of residential school abuse, poverty - but Kendall, Sapers and Iacobucci are right.
The situation is appalling.
"We are paying the price every which way for a couple of hundred, three-, four-, five-hundred years, depending on how you want to count it up - oppression of First Nations," said Leonard Krog, justice spokesman for the provincial New Democrats.
"When the South African government was setting up the apartheid system, that's what they did, was send agents to Canada to look at the reserve system, (they) took it back home to South Africa and figured out how to set up apartheid."
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