'The system is broken': New report finds 30 per cent of Canadian inmates are Indigenous
A new report from a federal prison watchdog identified a ‘disturbing’ trend among Canadian inmates.
According to findings from the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Ivan Zinger, more than 30 per cent of inmates in Canada are Indigenous. Indigenous people account for five per cent of Canada’s population.
“It is not acceptable that Indigenous people in this country experience incarceration rates that are six-to-seven times higher than the national average,” Zinger said in a news release.
“Bold and urgent action is required to address one of Canada’s most persistent and pressing human rights issues.”
Owen Pelletier, a former gang member who spent time at correctional facilities in Saskatoon and Regina, echoed the need for change.
“It’s broken, the system is broken. They need to fix the system,” Pelletier, from the Cowessess First Nation, told CTV News.
"The guys in jail are all like me, suffering from the same intergenerational trauma that I experience."
The report’s findings showed the number of Indigenous people serving a federal sentence has increased by 43 per cent since 2010.
“They’re just locking us up like we’re animals. They’re not talking to us, they’re not trying to address the issues, they’re not utilizing any resources … It’s just lock-up, throw away the key and keep repeating the cycle,” Pelletier said.
Michael Nolin, a criminal defense lawyer in Saskatoon, said the numbers are shocking but not surprising. He said the justice system is flawed.
“My fear is we're creating a revolving door that people are coming in and out and reoffending quickly and then judges are left with no choice but to impose a lengthy prison sentence for rather minor criminality."
Nolin said poverty and addiction are factors at play when people commit crime.
To combat this, he said more resources and education is needed.
“I think there's a huge gap between the community resources available to tackle intergenerational trauma, substance abuse and other issues facing our citizens and they're finding themselves more and more in conflict with the law. And the judges, to some extent, their hands are tied when there's insufficient community resources. Sometimes jail is just the last option,” Nolin said.
The report found Indigenous women accounted for 42 per cent of the female prison population.
The Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan, an organization that advocates for incarcerated women, called the situation an emergency.
"We need to be culturally sensitive. We need to go back to the culture and we need to go back and engage with our women in a culturally sensitive matter. We need to be reconciling with the community as a whole,” Sandra Stack, the executive director, said.
Stack said there’s a need for more programming to help Indigenous inmates transition back into society.
Pelletier was able to get counselling that helped him leave his gang lifestyle behind, and suggests more access to elders and Indigenous healing practices could help others too.
He said it’s important to address the underlying issues.
"Why are these people hurting? What pains are they trying to numb? What are they running from? You got to start dealing with these issues in order to start the healing process,” Pelletier said.