Despite only comprising 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, Aboriginals make up over 25 per cent of federally sentenced inmates. The percentage of Aboriginal women in federal prison is even higher – 36 per cent of all female federal inmates are Aboriginal.
In recent years, much attention has been drawn to the of the over-incarceration of black men in the United States, where black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. But in Canada, Aboriginals are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of non-Aboriginals. The problem is greatest in the Prairies. In Saskatchewan, for example, Aboriginals are 33 times more likely to be incarcerated. This is particularly concerning in light of Canada’s steadily declining crime rate which recently hit a 45-year low.
Just last week, Raymonde Saint-Germain, Quebec’s ombudsperson, released a scathing report on the treatment of Inuit people in the Quebec justice system. Ms. Saint-Germain highlighted numerous concerns after witnessing serious violations of inmates’ rights in northern Quebec. Ms. Saint-Germain also noted a dramatic increase in the number of Inuit in provincial jails over the past six years.
The reasons for the disparity are complex. Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, points to poverty, the history of colonialism and the lasting effects of the residential school system as some of the reasons why so many Aboriginal people suffer from problems that land them in the justice system. Cuts to social services, health care and education have also served to multiply the problems faced by Aboriginals in Canada. Another reason for the spike in Aboriginal incarceration is the harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing laws passed by Stephen Harper’s conservative government over the past decade which increased sentences for a wide variety of crimes while limiting parole opportunities. Finally, Aboriginal people are further disadvantaged by discriminatory practices and a biased justice system.
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