Canada Fails to Assist Jailed Aboriginal Women

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

An advocate for Canada's Aboriginal women chides the government for neglecting a marginalized population. Aboriginal women account for 33 percent of federally-sentenced female offenders in the country.

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Kate Rexe of the Native Women's Association of CanadaVANCOUVER, British Columbia (WOMENSENEWS)--Kate Rexe, at the Ottawa-based Native Women's Association of Canada, sees public foot-dragging on longstanding recommendations by the federal correctional ombudsman for reducing imprisonment of Aboriginal women.

In particular, she is frustrated by the government's resistance to repeated calls for a special deputy commissioner for Aboriginal offenders.

"That just goes to show the continued marginalization of Aboriginal peoples and their interests," said Rexe in a telephone interview. "If the system isn't even willing to acknowledge the primary recommendation of a report that shows the federal government has failed . . . how far are we really going to get?"

Although Aboriginal people account for only about 4 percent of Canada's adult population, they represent 20 percent of the total federal offender population, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

That overrepresentation is even more dramatic among Aboriginal women.

Complicated by a variety of factors, including poverty, social exclusion, substance abuse and discrimination, Aboriginal women account for 33 percent of federally-sentenced female offenders, the Office of the Correctional Investigator said.

Despite years of urging swift action, that disproportionate rate of imprisonment has worsened for one of the most marginalized segments of Canadian society.

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the country's prisons was identified as a problem as early as 1990 by a special task force, established by the Correctional Service of Canada. Around that time, Aboriginal women represented nearly 17 percent of the female prison population, according to the Correctional Service.

Back then, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, which included community representatives and government agencies, stressed the need for prison programs that reflected the cultural and spiritual backgrounds of Aboriginal women. Two decades on, culturally-relevant programs are yet to be made available nationwide.

Matters Getting Worse

The latest report, in November, found matters getting worse, with the number of Aboriginal women incarcerated in federal prisons increasing by 131 percent in the past decade. The report was commissioned by the Correctional Investigator.

Among its findings, the independent report said the Correctional Service, the government agency responsible for managing federal correctional institutions, is failing to do all it can for Aboriginal offenders and their communities.

Moreover, its author, lawyer and Aboriginal policy consultant Michelle Mann noted that a key recommendation that it has made for years--to appoint a deputy commissioner with special responsibility for the concerns of Aboriginal offenders--has not been implemented.

Such an appointment would address "the lack of dedicated and focused leadership at the very highest levels" of the Correctional Service, the Investigator said.

While a spokesperson for the Correctional Service agreed with the report's assessment that more needs to be done, she said that the government correctional agency is already in the midst of implementing a five-year plan, started in 2006, that aims to promote the reintegration of Aboriginal offenders into society.

In an email, spokesperson Christa McGregor said the Correctional Service has so far made "significant strides," such as establishing healing lodges for offenders and recruiting Aboriginal staff at all levels, from wardens to parole officers.

However, she dismissed the call for a deputy commissioner as redundant, saying the additional position "would add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost to the current governance structure."

Rexe, whose organization has been calling for a deputy commissioner for Aboriginal offenders since as early as 2006, said the position was necessary to monitor, from an executive level, whether Aboriginal offenders are getting access to culturally-relevant programs and services. The position could also advocate on their behalf from within the corrections system. She said the Correctional Service's refusal to act on this recommendation indicates a lack of political will.

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