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.

Over Policed and Under Protected

The high rate of incarceration does not necessarily indicate Aboriginal women commit more–and more serious–crimes, said Rexe, director of the association’s Sisters in Spirits, a research and policy program that focuses on missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Rather, they are constantly over policed and under protected.

Rexe noted that at least 520 Aboriginal women have been reported missing or found murdered throughout Canada over the past 40 years, yet in many of these cases police failed to take the family’s missing persons report seriously and continue to treat victims as criminals.

Many young women find themselves in conflict with the law because they are drawn into prostitution or coerced into acting as drug mules by exploitative older men, Rexe said, suggesting such women should not be criminalized. Once young women have entered correctional institutions, she added, their chances of becoming affiliated with criminal gangs increase, raising their risks of committing further offenses after their release.

While many Aboriginal communities wish to find solutions among themselves, resources and funding are often simply not available, Rexe said.

In addition to chiding the government for failing to appoint a special deputy commissioner, Mann pointed to delays in the Correctional Service of Canada’s implementation of national programs designed specifically to address the rehabilitation needs of Aboriginal offenders that incorporate traditional and spiritual practices.

The process of hiring and training Aboriginal elders to give guidance to female inmates was seen to be "lagging without adequate rationale."

Mann also noted that Aboriginal women continue to be disproportionately segregated and placed into higher security institutions than non-Aboriginals. Aboriginal women accounted for 45 percent of women in maximum security prisons in September 2007, the report said, while they made up only 18 percent of the female population at minimum security prisons.

Parole Less Likely

The report added that Aboriginal offenders, particularly women, are less likely to receive parole and are more likely to serve longer prison terms.

Jerry Adams, executive director of Vancouver’s Circle of Eagles Lodge Society, an organization run by Aboriginals to assist the reintegration of ex-offenders, said the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the prison system is part of a cycle of poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, violence, homelessness and despair.

"It’s a multi-faceted problem," Adams said. "It’s everything under the sun, so some of these women have no hope for success in our community."

For many, he said, the problems stem from Canada’s history of residential schools, when generations of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families between the 1870s and 1970s and educated at government-funded, Christian church-administered schools aimed at assimilating them. At these notoriously discriminatory schools, many former students have claimed they were physically and sexually abused, forcibly confined and stripped of their traditional languages and culture.

Rexe describes the echoing effects of that long period of discrimination in the social effects of women’s incarceration.

Families are fragmented, children are disconnected from their mothers and women, once released from prison, struggle to reintegrate into their communities, she said.

"When we go back to traditional understandings of Aboriginal women’s roles in society…women are the caregivers. They are at the core of the community and the family," she said. "By disconnecting women from the community and the family, there is a lot of chaos."

Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada.

For more information:

Good Intentions, Disappointing Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections

Correctional Service of Canada Aboriginal Initiatives:

Native Women’s Association of Canada:

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