Aboriginal people

There is an old adage that if you treat people who are in unequal circumstances the same as everyone else, you simply exacerbate that inequality. A clear example of that is the impact Canada’s justice and corrections systems have on Aboriginal people.

While representing only about two percent of Canada’s adult population, in 2011 Aboriginal offenders made up 21.5% of those incarcerated in federal institutions and 13.6% of offenders supervised in the community. The total Aboriginal offender population represented 18.5% of all federal offenders. The situation of Aboriginal female offenders is more drastic. In 2010-11, Aboriginal women accounted for over 31.9% of all incarcerated women with an increase of 85.7% over the last decade.

While Aboriginal people are over-represented in federal corrections nationally, the numbers reach critical levels in the Prairie Region where Aboriginal people make up more than 55% of the total inmate population at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and more than 60% at Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The situation is even worse in some provincial institutions which are recognized as “feeder” institutions for penitentiaries.

Aboriginal over-representation in the courts and corrections will probably worsen over the coming decade as a result of the current Aboriginal “baby boom”. As 18 to 25-year-old men and women are most likely to become involved in criminal activity than other age groups, this cohort of Aboriginal youth will have a serious impact on the justice system unless new and innovative approaches are introduced.

Aboriginal peoples have been active in exploring alternatives to the current Canadian justice and corrections systems. Returning to traditional approaches, some communities and organizations have evolved restorative measures that have two major goals, which are to stop the offender doing further harm and to involve the victims as equal participants. These approaches can range from circle sentencing, through the full range of restorative approaches, to community-wide, multi-year healing processes. Aboriginal people have also taken responsibility for the care and custody of federal offenders through the creation of Aboriginal Healing Lodges or Healing Centres, although there are currently only three such Centres for men and one for women in Canada.

In spite of successes, federal and provincial governments still approach Aboriginal-controlled restorative processes with caution and a lot of misunderstanding. These processes are mostly funded through cyclical agreements that are subject to periodic review. These funding arrangements do not allow Aboriginal communities and organizations to enjoy a sense of permanency or to expand the scope of innovation. Funding can be withdrawn if the community or organization does not meet standards set, not by Aboriginal people, but by governments. As one Saskatchewan Elder pointed out, if Canada’s justice and corrections system was held to the same level of accountability and outcomes that Aboriginal people are, Canada would have shut them down years ago.

Further information about the relationship between Canada’s justice system and Aboriginal people, and the efforts by Aboriginal people to improve the justice and correction systems for their communities, can be found in publications from Justice Canada’s Aboriginal Justice Strategy and Courtwork Program; and Public Safety Canada’s Aboriginal Corrections Policy Unit.

Ed Buller