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.