The First Nations prison population in Canada has risen to 23 per cent, up from 14 per cent 10 years ago, according to a special report on aboriginals in the Canadian correctional system that will be released Thursday.

Canada’s Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers’ report will be released Thursday, but CTV’s Power Play was briefed in advance.

Some of the primary findings of the report include:

  • Despite making up only 4 per cent of the general Canadian population, aboriginals make up 23 per cent of the prison population.
  • Only modest progress has been made in providing aboriginals with alternative forms of justice such as healing lodges and healing circles.
  • Re-offender rates for aboriginals are much higher than for non-aboriginals.

Legal director for the Toronto Aboriginal Legal Services Christa Big Canoe told CTV’s Power Play that she wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“They should shock the population and Canadians in general, but over-representation has been occurring for some time now,” she said. “Even in 2003, the over-representation of aboriginal people in custody was high.”

Big Canoe said a history of over-incarcerating First Nations people has played a significant role in today’s current rates, where aboriginals are disproportionately represented.

During the past four decades aboriginals received longer and harsher sentences for committing similar offences as their non-aboriginal counterparts, according to Big Canoe, resulting in a “setup” where over-representation has become a “downward spiral” for the community.

“Aboriginal people have experienced the Canadian justice system a little more strictly and stringently then some non-aboriginal people,” she said, citing reports including the 1996 Royal Commission and examples from case law.

As well, she said, there are opportunities for rehabilitation that are being missed prior to incarceration that could result in lower numbers of aboriginals in police custody.

Big Canoe said that Corrections Canada has a legislative responsibility to provide aboriginal people with “culturally appropriate programming,” including alternative forms of justice, like healing circles.

This isn’t happening due to prison overcrowding and understaffing, she said.

“When you have overcrowding and understaffing, it results in less programming.”