Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories lashed on aboriginal incarcerations

One-quarter of convicts native, programs underfunded: report

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OTTAWA -- Aboriginal offenders make up one-quarter of Canada's federal prison population and are being left behind bars far longer than their non-aboriginal counterparts, says a special report from the country's correctional investigator.

The report by Howard Sapers, tabled Thursday in the House of Commons, chastises the government not only for how it deals with aboriginals behind bars, but also for failing to keep them out of jail.

"If I were releasing a report card on aboriginal corrections today, it would be filled with failing grades," Sapers told a news conference.

Roughly one in four inmates in federal penitentiaries is aboriginal, yet aboriginal-specific provisions in the justice system are chronically underfunded, the report says.

It's a problem that's been largely ignored and allowed to worsen during the past two decades, ever since the Corrections and Conditional Release Act was passed into law in 1992, Sapers said.

Sections 81 and 84 of the law allow the public safety minister to transfer aboriginal inmates to community facilities and so-called healing lodges, but that power is not being properly used, the report concludes.

"When we consider outcomes 20 years after Section 81 and Section 84 became law, we find aboriginal offenders are still much more likely to serve more of their federal sentence behind bars and in more restricted conditions of confinement than their non-aboriginal counterparts."

Aboriginal offenders also return to federal custody at a higher rate, are twice as likely to be involved with gangs than their non-aboriginal counterparts and less likely to be granted parole, the report found.

The landmark report found just four agreements have been reached between the federal government and aboriginal communities to allow for Section 81 transfer of inmates, with just 68 beds available in four healing lodges across the country. No such agreements exist in Ontario, British Columbia, Atlantic Canada and the North.

Healing lodges in aboriginal communities receive only a fraction of the money made available to similar facilities operated by Corrections Canada.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association called the report proof the corrections system is "racist."

"This is an appalling example of the discrimination against indigenous people in this country and it is tearing communities and families apart," said association director Josh Paterson. "This is racist and it is unacceptable."

The Conservative government needs to significantly increase funding to deal with aboriginal offenders, Sapers said.

"This is a bit of a 'pay me now (or) pay me later' argument. Healing-lodge beds are cheaper to run than minimum- and medium-security beds in a mainstream institution."

Under questioning in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said people are in prison for a reason.

"It is important to note that prisoners are people who were found guilty of criminal acts by independent courts," Harper said in French, "and it is essential for society to act."

The government has bolstered spending on anti-crime programs, including the Northern Aboriginal Crime Prevention Fund, added Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

More is needed than just throwing money at the justice system, Sapers said.

Underfunding of education in aboriginal communities and a failure to understand aboriginal people and their culture is leading to more aboriginals being put behind bars, he said.

The best strategy to reduce disproportionate incarceration rates among aboriginals is to spend more on education, said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

"We need to work together to increase graduation rates from high school, post-secondary and training programs as the best remedies we have to keep our youth away from the justice system and out of prisons," Atleo said in a statement.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 A13

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