Hill Times January 27 2020
Last week the Office of the Correctional Investigator issued a scathing report on the state of Indigenous people in federal prisons. It’s bad. The overall proportion of Indigenous people is at 30 per cent, and for Indigenous women the figure is even higher.
About 10 years ago, I toured the Saskatchewan Penitentiary at Prince Albert. It was difficult to see, even then, the majority of people in that institution were Indigenous. Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler noted recently the Thunder Bay District Jail include 75 per cent Indigenous peoples.
Inquiring minds will start to ask the question why? Why is this a national problem? Inquiring minds need to be comfortable with some discomfort in one potential reason: pervasive racism. If there is resistance to this perspective then try this on for size: does anybody want to argue that the reasons is that all Indigenous peoples are criminals? All drunks? It’s all their fault? That sounds pretty Trumpish to me.
The sad truth is that the corrections system is where the most vulnerable of Canadians find themselves when education, health, mental health and housing systems have failed them. Ivan Zinger’s scathing report is scathing, then, not only on corrections, but also on education and health and mental health and housing. It’s a scathing report on Canada’s refusal to protect its own citizens.
And this scathing report is now sitting on top of many such scathing reports that cover the sectors of justice, health, child welfare and more.
What evidence do we have that political leaders and parliamentarians will address this? Not much evidence. One may argue this is simply cynicism, except for the piles of scathing reports that continue to gather dust on the Hill. It’s very likely that policy analysts are frantically writing briefing notes right now that line up the key factors to fix this problem and attach a price tag. And this is where the good policy responses die—on the price tag at the central agencies.
Yes! We believe in reconciliation! But no, we won’t pay for it. Insert policy defence of status quo here. Defending the status quo is much easier when you’re not living in it.
If the City of Ottawa suffered similar challenges that many Indigenous communities endure, here is how it might look:
- the water is unsafe to drink, and has been like that for years;
- your K-12 schools would be condemned but still used even with mould and safety issues;
- your kids might graduate school, but without math and science, as there are no labs in schools, so university is so much more difficult;
- there might be a hundred or so physicians, but they only fly in periodically;
- the hospital is 500 km away by flight or ice road, and the decision-makers say it will cost too much to build a hospital for this place;
- the police might just as easily arrest you rather than protect you;
- you know all the people incarcerated because they are all family members, and you know almost all of them are jailed because the system itself has a bias against people like you;
- most everybody you know can share a story about how they experienced discrimination from police or the courts;
- and your Members of Parliament will say they care…repeatedly.
Sounds harsh? That’s because it is harsh. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities might face some or all of these risk factors, every day.
Reconciliation demands that we deconstruct the status quo. Listen closely, central agencies and parliamentarians: reconciliation demands two things of you, first, you are asked to learn more to do better, and second, this is going to cost some funds. If it were your kids, would you fight for it?