Indigenous women will soon account for 50% of all federally incarcerated women, according to a statement released by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI). The number of Indigenous women, and Indigenous people of all genders, has continued to rise even as the overall federal prison population is in decline. The OCI reported that since 2012, the overall number of Indigenous people in federal prison has increased by 18.1%, whereas the number of non-Indigenous people in federal prisons has decreased by 28.26% over the same period. The ongoing over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples, and in particular Indigenous women, is part of the colonial and genocidal past and present of the Canadian state.
The path forward to stopping this crisis must address the root causes and put Indigenous self-determination at the centre of any and all solutions.
There are several overlapping factors which have contributed to this crisis, including:
Many negative socioeconomic outcomes can be traced directly to colonial policies and have been identified in a recent study by Public Safety Canada as a contributing cause of the over-incarceration of Indigenous communities, particularly Indigenous women.
Not only are Indigenous women over-represented in federal prisons, but the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)’s Custody Rating Scale fails to identify, reflect or accommodate the needs, capacities, and circumstances of Indigenous women. As a result, first Nations, Inuit, and Métis women are routinely classified as higher security risks than non-Indigenous women in prison and are placed in segregation far more frequently. Indigenous women are also more likely to be denied parole, to have served a longer portion of their sentence in custody once granted parole, and to have their parole revoked for technical reasons.
Racial profiling and over-policing have been identified as principal causes of the criminalization of Indigenous people and other marginalized groups in Canada – and Indigenous women are more likely to experience police discrimination than both non-Indigenous women and Indigenous men.
A report from the House of Commons highlighted how, in addition to over-policing Indigenous communities, the police recurrently fail to protect Indigenous women from the disproportionate violence they experience. Police often fail to take reports seriously, delay or mishandle investigations, and neglect to coordinate with other policing bodies when dealing with Indigenous victims.
Past negative experiences with police often discourage women who are experience abuse from seeking police help, which exposes women to further unchecked violence. Many Indigenous women experience racist and sexist verbal abuse, as well as physical and sexual violence at the hands of the police. A Human Rights Watch Report out of British Columbia found that the fear of retaliation means that many cases of violence against Indigenous women go unreported.
The National Inquiry into MMIWG revealed Indigenous Peoples’ frequent and justified lack of trust and confidence in the RCMP due to continued racism and sexism by many RCMP officers and a lack of resolve in holding perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women accountable.
Canada continues to criminalize Indigenous resistance. Numerous recent examples exist of Canadian police forces targeting Indigenous land defenders and activists, predominantly Indigenous women, for resisting resource extraction projects on unceded territories. These include reports of illegal monitoring of Indigenous groups by Canadian intelligence agencies and mass arrests of land defenders from coast to coast.
Since 1989, there have been eleven Royal Commissions and Commissions of Inquiry that have addressed the issue of how the justice system is failing Indigenous Peoples. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that “[t]he figures are stark and reflect what may fairly be termed a crisis in the Canadian criminal justice system.” Overincarceration has also been explored in numerous Correctional Investigator Reports and is included in the Calls to Action of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (“TRC”) and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (“MMIW”).
Despite this issue being so thoroughly documented, little substantive active has been taken by the government to address it.