Despite making up only five per cent of Canada’s population, Indigenous people serving federal sentences now represent more than 30 per cent of the overall prison population – a historic high that’s renewed calls for fundamental changes to the country’s correctional system.

Eighty-three per cent of inmates in the NWT correctional system are Indigenous, according to the Department of Justice. NNSL file photo

The increasing over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons across Canada is outlined in a report released last week by the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

While the overall number of federal inmates – those serving custodial sentences of two or more years – has dropped in recent years, the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars continues to climb at a “disturbing” and unacceptable rate, says lead investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger.

The number of Indigenous federal inmates has soared by 43.4 per cent since 2010, while the prison population of non-Indigenous individuals has declined by almost 14 per cent over the same period.

‘Deepening Indigenization’

The passing of the 30 per cent mark, a five per cent spike from four years ago, signals a “deepening Indigenization,” of a correctional system rife with “entrenched imbalances,” stated Zinger.

“The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty,” he wrote.

The troubling trend is mirrored in NWT jails.

Of the total number of adult inmates in custody at the territory’s three correctional facilities, 83 per cent are Indigenous, according to GNWT Justice Department spokesperson Sue Glowach.

There are no federal prisons in the NWT. The territory is home to three jails: Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex, South Mackenzie Correctional Centre in Hay River and the Fort Smith Correctional Complex. The facilities are mostly occupied by inmates awaiting trial or sentencing – known as remand custody – and inmates serving sentences of less than two years. Federal sentences are usually served in southern prisons but federal offenders sometimes serve their sentences in NWT jails. Currently, there are only two federal offenders in NWT correctional facilities, according to Glowach.

Eighty-two per cent of all sentenced inmates are Indigenous. Of all remanded inmates, 84 are Indigenous, current figures show.

Roughly half of the territory’s population is Indigenous.

According to “snapshot” data collected by the justice department last week, all women currently behind bars in the NWT are Indigenous – 100 per cent. News/North has reached out to the Native Women’s Association of the NWT for comment.

The stark over-representation mirrors a national trend: Indigenous women now make up 42 per cent of all women in federal custody.

‘Let’s deal with Indigenous wellness instead of Indigenous incarceration’

Garth Wallbridge, a Metis lawyer based in Yellowknife who has practised criminal law in the capital and Nunavut, says the report is the latest indication that the country’s correctional system simply isn’t working.

“Incarceration is seen as a solution, when it’s not,” Wallbridge told News/North. “We have known in this country for 35 years, if not longer, that the problem is getting worse.”
Yet the same approach is used “again and again,” he said. People are jailed to deter and denounce crimes, and for the sake of “rehabilitation,” when incarceration should be reserved for offenders who pose a legitimate threat to the public.

“For many Indigenous people today, we now consider prisons and jails to be the new residential schools,” said Wallbridge.

“We have to do something different.”

That will take a “huge shift in focus” – governments need to increase funding for alternative sentencing methods, for one thing, he said.

Wallbridge pointed to the success of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, an initiative that focuses on traditional and cultural healing practices in the North. It runs an on-the-land healing camp in Yellowknife.

He said similar initiatives should be adopted across the country to tackle the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons and jails.

“Let’s deal with Indigenous wellness instead of Indigenous incarceration,” said Wallbridge.
Indigenous people’s disproportionate presence in correctional systems won’t be curbed or reversed until the root causes of crime committed by Indigenous people are confronted, says Yellowknife-based defence lawyer Peter Harte.

“We end up jailing people as punishment. It is a systemic response based on the theory that they have made a choice to become involved in criminal activity when it is frequently the case that ability to make choices is just about the last thing they have,” Harte told News/North.

Courts have acknowledged Indigenous peoples’ disproportionate presence in the correctional system is only getting worse but blame is often placed on government inaction in tackling the underlying causes, said Harte.

“Until courts start saying we are not going to punish people who have come into conflict with the law because of these social problems, government will have little incentive to come to grips with the real issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, the territory’s crime rate routinely ranks among the highest in Canada. Crime severity rates in the NWT continue to outpace national averages.

“As long as we continue to punish people for crime by putting them in jail, with these crime rates, we will see increasing numbers of Aboriginal offenders incarcerated,” said Harte.

Federal investigator calls for ‘bold and urgent action’

To address one of the nation’s “most persistent and pressing human rights issues,” Zinger’s report calls for “bold and urgent action” from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) – the body responsible for overseeing the custody of federal inmates – and the Canadian government as a whole. For too long, the CSC has “recused itself from any responsibility for Indigenous over-representation,” stated Zinger.

Zinger says the CSC needs to make “drastic” changes to lower the rate of re-admissions, and to better equip Indigenous offenders to return safely to their home communities post-incarceration. Echoing calls to action made in the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), Zinger’s report makes a number of recommendations – including appointing a deputy commissioner for Indigenous Corrections, bolstering availability to culturally relevant correctional programming and enhancing the role of Indigenous elders in the correctional system.

The report also recommends boosting access to screening, diagnosis and treatment of Indigenous offenders affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Harte, who often represents clients with cognitive deficits, welcomes the idea – a change he says would have an impact on a territorial level, too.

Harte said the correctional system needs to be more responsive to the needs of FASD-affected Indigenous people passing through the courts.

“If we could identify the deficits that are at the heart of their offending, we can maybe focus on fixing the problem as opposed to imposing punishment with the hope that the punished will somehow figure it out,” said Harte.

Indigenous incarceration facts

  • Nationally, Indigenous people incarcerated in Canada’s prisons are more likely to be placed and held longer in segregation, or solitary confinement.
  • Federal Indigenous offenders are disproportionately housed in maximum security facilities, are over-represented in incidents related to use of force and self-harm, and serve a higher proportion of their sentence before being granted parole compared to non-Indigenous inmates.
  • At the current rate, Indigenous people in Canada are on pace to make up 33 per cent of all federal inmates in the next three years.
    Indigenous people in Canada face incarceration rates six to seven times higher than the national average.

Source: Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Brendan Burke

As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility...

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  1. Percent is one word. I liked the article but proof reading might help with your work being taken seriously.