Drawing of a woman holding up a sign taht reads, "NO JUSTICE IN PRISON FOR ABORIGINAL WOMEN."

An alarming 36% of women in Canadian prisons are Indigenous

For the first time in the history of Canada as a nation state, more than a quarter of inmates in prisons are Indigenous people. In 2011, the total ‘Aboriginal population‘ (inclusive of Inuit, Metis, & First Nations people) represented only 4.3% of the total Canadian population. This means that less than 5% of the Canadian population makes up of over 25% of their prison population. For Indigenous women, the numbers are even higher, accounting for more than 36% of women in prison. The most recent statistics suggest that Indigenous women only account for 4% of the total Canadian female population. The number of Aboriginal women who were locked behind bars in federal institutions grew a staggering 97 % between 2002 and 2012, one study concluded, at a much faster rate than Aboriginal male offenders.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, remarked on the growth, stating that 30 years ago, only 10% of federal inmates were aboriginal people.  The total Indigenous population was only 2.8% in the 1996 Census, meaning the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons is longstanding.

These numbers are staggering. “Previous attempts to reduce the gap in outcomes between aboriginal and non-aboriginal offenders have largely failed,” wrote Michelle Mann, the independent researcher who prepared the report.

Despite decades of advocacy by First Nations communities, organizations and bands, there remains a lack of local and global attention .

These numbers are connected to the history of colonialism, a legacy of sex abuse in the residential school system, missing & murdered Indigenous women, as well as the ‘60s scoop‘, all of which disproportionately affect women and girls. (The term 60s scoop refers to the staggering numbers of ‘adoptions’ in 1960s enabled by the abduction of children from their homes and communities without the knowledge or consent of families and bands. The Federal government and social workers acted under the ‘colonialistic assumption that native people were culturally inferior and unable to adequately provide for the needs of the children.’)

First Nations communities have called these acts genocide, while governments continue to resist the term. Shamiran Mako, a Canadian scholar, sees a pattern of opposition from countries with a history of colonization, and especially from countries that “had some systematic laws that either resulted in genocide or cultural genocide of the indigenous population.”

Despite being identified yearly as a both a priority and human rights concern, Sapers said efforts to decrease these numbers are not working, and identified major gaps and issues including: lack of coherent implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth And Reconciliation Commission, and legislative provisions that were chronically under-funded, under-utilized and unevenly applied by the correctional service.

There remains an urgent need for accountability and reform at a federal level to Indigenous People and First Nations in Canada, and increased services and support to prevent criminalization.

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Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed artist, educator and writer.

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