Aboriginal people in Canada will bear the brunt of Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Crimes

In early April, the BC Provincial Health Officer released a report that warns that recent changes to sentencing and other justice practices brought about by the enactment of the Safe Streets and Communities Act (SSCA) will have very negative effects on the health of Aboriginal people – changes brought about by the SSCA like mandatory minimum sentences will put more Aboriginal people in prison.

This report also notes that the SSCA appears to conflict with other federal programs aimed at reducing prison time, specifically section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code, which requires sentencing judges to consider all options other than incarceration.[i]

The imposition of mandatory minimum sentences flies in the face of evidence of their ineffectiveness. Convicting people of drug-related offences does not reduce the problems associated with drug use, nor do these sentences deter crime.[ii]

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal Canadians in this country’s prison system is a national disgrace, made all the more disturbing by its avoidability. In 2011, approximately 4% of the Canadian population was Aboriginal, while 21.5% of the federal incarcerated population were Aboriginal. Since 2006-07, there has been a 43% increase in Aboriginal inmate population, and one in three federally sentenced women are Aborignal. In the Prairies, Aboriginal people comprise more than 55% of the total prison population at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and 60% at Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. Provincial rates are even worse; 81% of people in provincial custody in Saskatchewan were Aboriginal in 2005.[iii]

As the BC Provincial Health Officer’s report argues, the reasons for the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in Canada’s prisons are multifaceted but are rooted in historical causes like colonialism, loss of culture, and economic and social marginalization by white Canadians.

These concerns were echoed in an October 2012 report by the Correctional Investigator of Canada entitled, Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA, 1992).[iv] This report speaks to the lack of resolve on the part of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to meet the commitments set out in the CCRA. The CCRA contains Aboriginal-specific provisions to enhance Aboriginal community involvement in corrections and address chronic over-representation of Aboriginal people in federal corrections. Included among these requirements were the establishment of Healing Lodges that emphasize Aboriginal beliefs and traditions and a focus on preparation for release.[v]

The report found that in BC, Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the North there were no Healing Lodge spaces for Aboriginal Women. In addition, because Healing Lodges limit intake to minimum-security offenders, 90% of Aboriginal offenders were excluded from being considered for a transfer to a Healing Lodge. The report concludes with a critique of the lack of action by the Correctional Service of Canada: “Consistent with expressions of Aboriginal self–determination, Sections 81 and 84 capture the promise to redefine the relationship between Aboriginal people and the federal government. Control over more aspects of release planning for Aboriginal offenders and greater access to more culturally-appropriate services and programming were original hopes when the CCRA was proclaimed in November 1992.”[vi]

The implications of Conservative government changes to sentencing practices are clear: rising rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people, higher rates of substance use problems combined with a lack of commitment to alternative healing paths means more federally and provincially sentenced Aboriginal people will end up in Canada’s prisons where they will not receive the services they need.

[i] Ibid., p. 43.

[ii] Tonry, M. 2009. “The Mostly Unintended Effects of Mandatory Penalties: Two Centuries of Consistent Findings.” In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Tonry, M., Ed. Volume 38. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Office of the Correctional Investigator. 2012b. Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, p.11. Available at: http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/rpt/pdf/oth-aut/oth-aut20121022-eng.pdf.

[iv] CIC, 2012b.

[v] Office of the Provincial Health Officer (BC), 2013.

[vi] Ibid., p. 33.

Connie Carter

About Connie Carter

Connie Carter, Ph.D. is the Senior Policy Analyst at the CDPC and a graduate of the UVIC Department of Sociology. She received a Bombardier Fellowship for her work analyzing citizen groups and government policy-makers as they responded to the issue of crystal meth use in BC in the early 2000s.

Sign up for latest news and updates

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition on Cannabis Regulation August 17, 2016

Canada is at a turning point in terms of cannabis policy. The Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation has released its discussion paper for input. The Task Force proposes five elements…

Survey sheds light on safety issues around drug... June 21, 2016

Originally posted on straight.com on June 9th, 2016 at 1:43 PM Stacey Forrester is a Vancouver-based harm-reduction advocate and nurse involved in projects on health and safety at live-music events and is focusing her…

Canada charts a new path on drug policy May 19, 2016

Scott Bernstein is the global drug policy program officer at the New York-based Open Society Foundations. He’s also the former health and drug policy campaigner for Pivot Legal Society, where he initiated…

Are 420 gatherings still relevant? April 22, 2016

On April 20th, or 420, I spoke with several reporters. They were particularly interested in my thoughts on 420 protests calling for the legalization of cannabis and whether such gatherings…

In The Lead Up to UNGASS, Canada is... April 14, 2016

It feels like we can breathe again. In mid-March, I attended the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, the annual drug policy meeting where delegations from over 50 countries…

War on Drugs Takes Center Stage at UN... March 29, 2016

Hannah Hetzer is the Senior Policy Manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance. Suchitra Rajagopalan is pursuing her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Mumbai and is…