Yesterday, Canada’s parliament was confronted with the ugly reality of our nation’s prison system. A new report, detailing deep “systemic inequalities“, was tabled calling attention to the incredibly disproportionate number of native people in Canada’s jails. With only about four percent of the country’s population, aboriginal peoples make up 23% of the prison population, an incarceration rate roughly ten times as high as the general population. Between 2001-2 and 2010-11, these numbers increased by 40%, in spite of parliamentary promises to address them. Once inside, incarcerated natives are more likely to see punishment like solitary confinement once inside and less likely to be released soon.

The report came from Howard Sapers of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a little-known institution created forty years ago as a watchdog for the prison system. This was the second time in its forty-year existence it’s seen an issue as so pressing that it had to be brought before the House, the first coming in 1994 after a brutal, all-male raid on Kingston’s (now closed) Prison For Women. Among the new recommendations the report makes are a dedicated “Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal Corrections”, creation and funding of more community-based healing lodges, better processes for releasing prisoners to their communities and better training for corrections staff. It also called attention to the decade that’s passed since any funding or attention was devoted to the problem.

Critics, of course, seized the opportunity to lambaste the Harper government and it’s “tough on crime” agenda, which has meant rising incarceration rates and dwindling prison budgets. In response, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews claimed, “the only identifiable group that our tough on crime agenda targets is criminals”.

Oh really? So they haven’t focused law enforcement resources on their environmentalist and activist adversaries? On refugees or toward First Nations before? (To be fair, this is one of Vic’s more honest and intelligent public statements…)

Also in the news yesterday was damning testimony from the late Ashley Smith’s psychologist at the inquiry into her death in custody. He stated that he’d opposed her transfer on the grounds it would separate her from family supports and threaten to destabilize her condition (which it did). Smith later strangled herself while guards watched on their superior’s orders, provoking a national outcry.

The poor treatment of indigenous people in Canada’s justice system is one of it’s worst-kept secrets. These statistics are nothing new, though they still aren’t showing any improvement. Sapers and Toews may assure us this is unintentional, but how many decades of neglect does it take to characterize ill intent? The Harper government flouted indigenous groups while taking concrete steps to underfund and overcrowd prisons. What did they think would happen?

This study, like many others, lays bare the racist face of Canada’s justice system. This is no accident – First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have been a prime focus of Canadian police since the inception of the North-West Mounted Police (later RCMP) under Sir John A, modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary. Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion had just shaken the country, and tasks like “maintaining order among Indians” and “enforcing treaty relations” (making sure tribes surrendered their children to residential schools) were considered top priorities. Modern policing emerged out of this framework, just as it did from slave patrols and debtor’s prisons, and that’s a legacy which it’s never really managed to escape. As overt racism in law started to dwindle in recent decades, policing and prisons have picked up the slack. In America, this process has been called the new Jim Crow – does that make it our “new Indian Act”?

Though he got the details ass-backwards, Gary McHale is right about one thing. Canada has a very well-established system of two-tiered “justice”.

Advertisements