Indigenous women now account for almost half of the female inmate population in federally run prisons, says a new report from Canada's correctional investigator.
Indigenous people make up about 32 per cent of the federal prison population, despite accounting for less than five per cent of the total population. Indigenous women, meanwhile, account for 48 per cent of the population in women's prisons.
Federal corrections investigator Ivan Zinger called the situation "appalling and shameful."
"It's just trending always, year after year, in the wrong direction. And this is irregardless of what various governments have done," he said.
Federally sentenced women incarcerated since 2012
The Indigenous inmate population has increased roughly 18 per cent over the past decade, while the number of non-Indigenous inmates has dropped by 28 per cent in the same period, says Zinger's report.
Cree lawyer Eleanore Sunchild said the rising numbers are disturbing but not surprising because she doesn't think the Canadian justice system sees Indigenous people as "human beings."
"These numbers just reflect the ongoing systemic racism and battle our people face in the criminal justice system," she said.
While the percentage of non-Indigenous offenders has dropped, Zinger said, there hasn't been a corresponding drop among Indigenous inmates because they are more likely to serve longer portions of their sentence and are less likely to be granted parole or conditional release.
In an emailed statement, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) said it shares Zinger's concern and pointed to a number of initiatives it's undertaking, such as healing lodges that offer culturally appropriate services to Indigenous offenders.
"We are making progress but recognize there is more work to do. CSC will continue to work with its criminal justice partners and Indigenous communities to support the rehabilitation of Indigenous offenders," the statement says.
Government not doing enough, critics say
But Zinger and a number of advocates said the government needs to go much further.
In the 10 healing lodges operated in part by CSC, there are only 200 spaces available. Zinger said that's not enough and the lodges need more funding.
Marion Buller, who served as the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, echoed Zinger's point.
The inquiry's final report offered 13 recommendations to address over-incarceration of Indigenous women, including calls for more Indigenous-run and culturally appropriate rehabilitation programs.
"The programming that's there isn't available as much as anybody would like, especially the inmates," Buller said. "And the programming that is available more often than not isn't culturally appropriate, and the culturally appropriate programming is underfunded and understaffed."
Mandatory minimum sentences
Before joining the Red Chamber, Sen. Kim Pate was executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which works on issues affecting women in the justice system.
She said the government also needs to look at the underlying causes of Indigenous overrepresentation in federal prisons.
"Just putting more Indigenous programs and services, or saying you're doing that — and largely that's been performative anyway — is not going to solve it," she said.
Justice Minister David Lametti cited the recently tabled Bill C-5 — which would cut a number of mandatory minimum sentences from the Criminal Code — as a tool to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system.
"C-5 is an important step in addressing the distressing statistics in the Corrections Investigator's report," Lametti said in a media statement.
But Pate said the government needs to go further and allow judges more discretion on mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving Indigenous offenders.
Sunchild said the government needs to put more emphasis on so-called Gladue reports — pre-sentencing and bail hearing reports that inform judges of the backgrounds of Indigenous offenders, including instances of trauma.
"The jails are full of Indigenous people who are survivors of Indian residential schools, or the children of survivors," she said.
Zinger said he is optimistic that the government will start making meaningful changes. He pointed to the fact that Lametti's mandate letter — his marching orders from the prime minister — task him with addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons.