Aboriginal Incarceration in Canada a National Shame

Emile TherienEmile Therien retired after 18 years as President of the Canada Safety Council in July 2006. He is currently President of PIP – Progress Intelligently Planned, a small enterprise which promotes its services to the non-profit sector, small companies and governments. He is a widely respected spokesperson on public health and safety issues/concerns.

National Aboriginal Day, featuring activities in aboriginal communities across the country, is celebrated on June 21. But as we honour Aboriginal Canadians, we should always keep in mind a great injustice that continues to be perpetuated against them. Incarceration!

First Nations children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school, according to Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

In his 2009 annual report, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers revealed that the rate for Aboriginal incarceration in 2008 was nine times the national average. Figures for 2007/2008 from Statistics Canada show that Aboriginal adults accounted for 22% of admissions to sentenced custody even though they represent only 3% of the population – and one in three federally sentenced women is Aboriginal.

In view of such a deplorable situation, one must ask why the federal government spends only 2% of its prison budget, which now exceeds $3 billion a year, on Aboriginal programs, while passing new crime legislation, Bill C-10, which will put more First Nations people in prison, where they will spend longer periods of time.

For the record, excluding the provincial system, there are over 14,000 federal offenders in custody and about 8,000 in the community on some form of conditional release. The Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) manages over 50 facilities, employs more than 20,000 people, up from 14,000 in 2005-2006, and has an annual budget of $3-billion, up from $1.6 billion in 2005-2006.

Back in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada made a ruling in a case involving an Aboriginal defendant, a Mr. Gladue. The ruling called on judges, in sentencing Aboriginal people, to exercise discretion, to be sensitive to the historical plight of Canada’s first nations, and always to consider their heritage. The application of this ruling led to what has become known as Gladue Court for Aboriginal people, and the use of Gladue reports when sentencing offenders.

The overall response by the judiciary to that landmark ruling, as evident by the growing incarceration rate of Aboriginals, has been apathetic and sporadic. Its application varies from one extreme to the other, depending on jurisdiction. Of late, judges, in response to inadequate access to native sentencing, have been reducing prison sentences for serious crimes committed by Aboriginals.

In one case in Windsor, when Ontario Superior Court Justice Renée Pomerance sought a Gladue report, she was told the service was not available in that city. She was told Gladue service was only available in Toronto, Brantford-Hamilton, Waterloo-Wellington, Sarnia, London, and parts of Northern Ontario. She declared that compliance with the law should not depend on the jurisdiction where the case is being heard. The law “applies to offenders across Canada, wherever they may reside and wherever they may be sentenced,” she wrote.

Some jurisdictions across the country evidently considered the edict from the Supreme Court of Canada only to be a suggestion. But in March 2012, the Supreme Court reiterated it was a firm requirement. “Courts must take judicial notice of such matters as the history of colonialism, displacement and residential schools and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide and, of course, higher levels of incarceration for Aboriginal Peoples,” Justice Louis LeBel wrote. “Failing to take these circumstances into account would violate the fundamental principle of sentencing.”

One expert, Jonathan Rudin, Program Director of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, has argued the situation will lead to a standoff between the courts and the government. Is the Gladue Court yet another failed initiative, further evidence of systemic disrespect and contempt for the rights of native Canadians?

An independent report commissioned by the Correctional Investigator and released in the fall of 2009 examined the situation of aboriginal offenders under federal sentence and found it remains unacceptable. The Mann Report, authored by Michelle Mann, titled Good Intentions, Disappointing Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections, describes how correctional outcomes for Aboriginal offenders continue to lag significantly behind those of non-Aboriginal offenders on almost every indicator. It found that the federal correctional service is not doing all it can for Aboriginal offenders and their communities.

To address the problems identified in the Mann Report, and to ensure the legal mandate of the Correctional Service is met, the Correctional Investigator called for the appointment of a Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal Corrections. This idea was dismissed outright by then Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Canada’s First Nations for this country’s despicable role in the Indian residential schools, a racist program aimed at assimilation and even today blamed for the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration. His apology at the time seemed genuine.

The Harper government claims it is committed to a policy that makes Aboriginals full members of the national economy. Where are the details of this policy? And – of utmost importance – how does it address the crushing rate of incarceration?

– Emile Therien

Links of interest:

Pizzas, Street Parlours and Prisons

Speech from Budget Bill Rally in Ottawa

Frances Deverell Rev. Frances Deverell is the president of the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice (CUSJ).

On Saturday, June 2, she joined the Leadnow protest in Ottawa outside Conservative Minister John Baird’s office and delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of over 100.



C-38 – Anti Democracy, Anti-Environment, Anti Economic Justice

A big thank you to Lead Now for organizing this rally and to Anita Grace for stepping up to be the local contact on the ground. And thank you so much for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Canadian Unitarians For Social Justice. Thanks to all the Unitarians and all the rest of you who came here today to stand in the rain and protest this terrible budget bill. Shall we take a page out of the Occupy Movement and try the human microphone? Yes?

Frances Deverell

Rev. Frances Deverell addressing the June 2 rally in Ottawa.

Mic check. Mic check.
I didn’t want to come out here and stand in the rain for a protest!  Did you?
I came because my heart is broken. This budget bill is a terrible bill for Canada.
I came to stand on guard for Canada.
As a Unitarian minister I want to hold up 3 principles I hold sacred.

The first is democracy. I object to the process of C-38.
An omnibus bill hides the facts. An omnibus bill suppresses debate.
We pay MP’s to examine the details give close scrutiny debate and LISTEN!
Closure gives no time for this.
In a democracy government regulates industry for the benefit of the common good.
This budget fires scientists who study Canada and produce knowledge.
This budget fires librarians, archivists, and statisticians who organize and store and make meaning of knowledge, and who keep our history. It doesn’t want to make decisions or set policy based on knowledge. It doesn’t value who we are.
This budget fires inspectors in all areas. When government abrogates its responsibilitiy of oversight it leaves the fox in charge of the chicken coop. We have more Walkerton’s, Food poisoning, Enbridge leaky pipelines,  and Gulf oil spills.

The second is the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I believe the earth, the air, the water are sacred.
I believe all species have a right to a place to live.
Gigantic scale mining produces industrialized landscapes that wipe out all life in their path. This trend must stop. It is a false economy.
We must change our ways to live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us and gives us life.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird are dismantling our environmental protection, to promote fast tar sands growth. The want to ignore their obligations to consult with First Nations who live and die eating polluted wildlife.
They care nothing for the needs, and well being, of future generations.
This bill changes the face of Canada without even a debate for the sake of greed and profit. This government was elected by 39% of the vote but it wields 100% of the power and gives 61% no respect. One minister can make and change rules with no consultation. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Why are they afraid to talk? Why are they afraid to listen?

Third: I hold justice, equity, and compassion sacred.
Where in this budget do we care for the homeless? Where in this budget do we care for the hungry? Instead, funding for medicare and education is threatened. Our pensions are under attack.
For the first time our children will have less security and well being than we have had. The social safety net that my parent’s generation set up is being dismantled piece by piece.
I stand here today in the rain to stand on guard of Canada.
I call on this government to slow down, slow down, slow down.
Break up this bill. Give us a national debate about the kind of Canada we want.
We want democracy.
We want environmental protection.
We want government oversight of industry.
We want respect and consultation with First Nations.
We want equity and a fair chance for all people and all life.

Bill C-38: Nobody voted for this

Protesting Bill C-38

People rallied in Ottawa to protest Bill C-38

Across Canada today, people gathered at the offices of their local Conservative MPs, looking for 13 ‘hero MPs’ who will vote against the omnibus budget bill.

Bill C-38, the 425-page budget bill, contains an unprecedented number of legislative changes. Major changes included in this bill are:

  • Tightening up tax penalties for NGO advocacy
  • Repealing the Environmental Assessment Act and replacing it with a whole new Act.
  • Restricting the length of pipeline environmental assessments.
  • Repealing Canada’s Kyoto commitment.
  • Extending the age at which Canadians will be eligible for old age pensions.
  • Removing the Office of the Inspector General, responsible for CSIS oversight.
  • Eliminating the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.
  • Eliminating the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
  • Eliminating the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Eliminating the National Council on Welfare.

Here in Ottawa, on behalf of LeadNow, I organized a protest outside the office of Conservative MP John Baird. I was amazed and humbled by the turn-out – probably 120 came out – despite cool weather and threatening rain clouds. We raised our voices in solidarity, telling our government that we are watching and we are deeply concerned.

Protesting Bill C-38

Conservative Budget Anti-Democratic

I brought a long sheet of paper on which people were encouraged to write messages to John Baird (the paper will be delivered to his office this week). Some of the words written there include:

“I don’t feel at home in Canada anymore.”

“Mr. Baird, Canadians care about clean air and water. We do not support the changes in Bill C-38.”

“What about my future?”

“Bill C-38 is pushing me into poverty. You promised to protect me and all seniors.”

“Bill C-38 will affect my life forever.”

“For democracy’s sake, stop this bill.”

One of the things I heard repeatedly from people at today’s rally was that this was the first time they had participated in a protest, but they felt compelled to come out.

“We will not be silent,” said Rev. Frances Deverell of the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice and the crowd shouted back, “We will not be silent.” Silence is not an option when democracy and our environment are so threatened.

A movement is growing across Canada – and today, it was thrilling to be a part of it.

For more information on Bill C-38, please see the attached pdf which was prepared and shared by Patricia, one of those attending today’s rally. I would also encourage you to check out Black Out Speak Out.


EMCP, Carleton University

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Philippe Mineau

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Critical perspectives on social justice