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

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