Monday, December 8, 2014
Doubling of native women in prison is a blight: Editorial
Justice department study shows 97 per cent increase in jailed aboriginal women over the past decade
Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers has repeatedly highlighted the stark overerepresentation of native women in the prison population.
ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published on Mon Dec 08 2014
The crisis was hidden in plain sight.
For years, Corrections Canada has reported that the number of aboriginal women behind bars was swelling. Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers has repeatedly highlighted the stark overepresentation of native women in the prison population. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has been sounding the alarm insistently.
Finally the anomaly caught public attention. Last week a new study came to light. It shows a staggering 97-per-cent increase in the number of aboriginal women jailed over the past decade. The government did not release the justice department report willingly. The Canadian Press had to use Access the Information laws to obtain it.
To put that near-doubling in perspective, the increase in the federal incarceration rate for aboriginal men was 34 per cent. For non-aboriginal women, it was just 9.6 per cent.
The most telling figure wasn’t in the report: just 4 per cent of Canadian women are aboriginal. Fully 40 per cent of women in federal and provincial jails are aboriginal.
“The overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the Canadian criminal justice system has been acknowledged,” the justice department said. “However, much of the attention has been on aboriginal people as a whole, without giving appropriate attention to the unique situation of aboriginal women.”
Federal bureaucrats offered no explanation for the steep rise. But by providing the characteristics of this sub-set of the female prison population – younger, less educated, with higher rates of substance abuse than the rest of the female prison population – they gave strong clues.
This comes on the heels of grudging admission by the RCMP that “the number of murdered and missing aboriginal females exceeds previous public estimates.” And it follows a 10-year campaign by Sisters in the Spirit to get Parliament to pay attention to the perilously high rate of violence against aboriginal women in Canada.
Although neither the RCMP nor federal bureaucrats will go beyond the disturbing numbers, Sapers has shown no such reticence. The correctional investigator points to poverty, limited education, family breakdown, systemic discrimination and the damage done by the residential school system. That certainly meshes with the profile of female aboriginal inmates contained in the justice department study: a disproportionately high rate of violent crime such as assault, robbery, forcible confinement and murder.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who is responsible for Canada’s prisons, has shown little interest in tackling this snarl of pathologies. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has alienated most First Nations. And Justice Minister Peter MacKay, whose department undertook this study, blocked calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, hurling his papers onto the floor of the Commons when the opposition parties refused to listen to his list of 40 initiatives the government has already taken.
In short, there is not much appetite for reform in Ottawa.
But a federal election is nine months away. If Canadians want to change this blight on the nation, now is the time.