Feds fund efforts to tackle disproportionate number of Indigenous, racialized people in Canadian prisons

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The federal government has announced funding for projects that promise to strengthen existing alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous people, who are overrepresented in Canada’s correctional systems.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced $5 million for the Indigenous Community Corrections Initiative (ICCI). The initiative funds programs that support incarcerated people, like counselling and friendship centre services, and projects that strengthen alternatives to custody, such as healing lodges.

“I've seen the benefit of programming that has as its focus Indigenous language, culture, history, values, as a way of promoting reintegration into the community,” Mendicino said at the announcement. “This does reduce some of the barriers that are baked into the system as a result of the hangover of colonialism.”

Although about five per cent of Canada’s population identifies as Indigenous, the correctional investigator found Indigenous offenders represent 39 per cent of use-of-force incidents in correctional institutions. A 2022 report from the correctional investigator found more than half of all women federally incarcerated in Canada are Indigenous. In the report, the correctional investigator said this overrepresentation is due to “systemic bias and racism” inherent in risk assessment and case management.

One way to address the correctional service’s systemic racism, Mendicino said, is to increase people’s access to culturally relevant education and support programs during and after custody.

“This program is to inject more resources and capacity to expand those types of programs right across the country,” Mendicino said.

MP Jaime Battiste, who joined Mendicino at the announcement, said culturally relevant programs for previously incarcerated people may show “great success.”

“When we give these opportunities to Indigenous people who are language speakers, with cultural sensitivity,” Battiste said, “when people that they know from their own communities are supporting them through these difficult times, we're seeing a greater deal of success and people not reoffending.”

Mendicino said he hoped to partner with organizations that offered alternatives to incarceration. Currently, the Correctional Services Canada has partnered with 10 healing lodges across Canada, which together have the actual capacity to house 198 people. That’s space for about 1.5 per cent of the total population of incarcerated people in Canada, and down 38 spots since 2014, according to the correctional investigator.

While they are intended to provide culturally relevant programs to support incarcerated Indigenous people, healing lodges have been criticized for being run by non-Indigenous people.

Mendicino called for community groups and experts representing Black, Indigenous and racialized people to partner with Correctional Services Canada and assist with offering reintegration programming and alternatives to custody. While no budget has yet been dedicated to the initiative, Mendicino said he was “anxious” to announce funding.

The deadline to express interest to partner with Corrections Services Canada is May 15. The ICCI will accept proposals for project funding until May 24.

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer