Though the number of people incarcerated in Canada has declined, Indigenous women – who are 5% of the country's general population – make up 38% of the federal prison demographic in 2016/17, according to a recently released Statistics Canada report.
As a result, the Status of Women committee is now making moves to reduce the gap between the number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women who are incarcerated. The group has set a 2025 deadline to significantly lower the detention numbers.
“It is ambitious. In my opinion, it’s something we have to do,” committee vice-chair and Liberal member of parliament, Pam Damoff, said on Tuesday.
The statistic represents a one-point increase over 2015/2016 and an 8-point increase in the last decade. Robert Henry, an assistant university professor, explained that the rate of incarcerated Indigenous people may be higher than the reported statistic has shown, since Metis people – who can “pass” as white – may not have been included in the final tally.
The recommendations in the report echo those found in the Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which the committee referenced.
The 200-page document contains some 96 recommendations overall, but the fifth – and most important to the intentions of the organization – commits “to eliminating the over-representation of Aboriginal people [and youth] in custody by 2025.”
The other 95 points address and examine the corrective measures suitable to fix social shortfalls which lead to women being imprisoned in the first place.
Josh Paterson, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association said a contributing factor to the number of Indigenous incarcerations is police who perform a disproportionate number of checks on Indigenous people, especially in cities like Vancouver.
“If one community is routinely, and over 100 years and more over-policed, over-surveilled, over-interfered with, it’s not a surprise they will wind up over incarcerated relative to others.”
Liberal MP Sean Fraser said: “If we implement all the recommendations in this report, I have a hope that the vast majority of people who are incarcerated today will never be incarcerated again.”
Fraser further explained that “the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences is going to go a long way to help the conditions that Indigenous women in Canada are facing right now.”
The report also suggests working with provinces and Indigenous communities to reduce the number of children in welfare, improving access to legal representation, providing better mental health care as well as establishing community-based legal recourse. The body has stated that the federal government should increase funding to plug the resource gap.
“It’s a strong message to the government we need to be making these investments,” the vice chair remarked.
Last November, the committee held nine meetings and heard from almost 60 witnesses. The federal government has 180 days to respond to the recommendations.
“We are not going to undo 150 years of colonial oppression with a single report – but with a few good faith actions we might be able to start to rebuild that trust,” Fraser said.