Imprisonment, Truth, and Reconciliation


Imprisonment, Truth, and Reconciliation

The recent reports confirming unmarked graves of children at residential school sites has brought home for many of us settlers the critical importance of acknowledging the genocide Canada has committed against Indigenous peoples on their own lands. The legacy of residential schools continues today with high numbers of
Indigenous peoples held in another colonial institution that separates families and causes immense trauma to individuals, communities, and Nations — prison.

Canadian courts have directed the justice system to consider the impact of colonialism in criminal sentencing and in the administration of the sentence. Yet mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples continues to grow, almost doubling in the past twenty years. Indigenous peoples now account for over 30% of people in federal prisons.

The experience of incarceration is incredibly harmful to Indigenous peoples, who are generally there because of intergenerational trauma and structural racism caused by colonialism. Indigenous peoples in prison are more likely to be held in maximum security where, according to the Correctional Investigator of Canada, they are often treated in a “cruel, callous and degrading manner.” Indigenous peoples are more likely to be held in solitary confinement, which is considered by the United Nations to be torture after 15 days. Indigenous peoples are more likely to have violence used against them by correctional officers, and to have higher rates of suicide attempts, self-harm, and death by homicide while in prison.

Prisons are failing at their stated goal of “rehabilitation” for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are significantly less likely to be released on parole and more likely to be held in custody until their statutory release dates than non-Indigenous people, meaning they serve a higher proportion of their sentences in custody rather than under community supervision.

Many Indigenous healers, leaders and scholars have explained that Indigenous peoples need healing within their own communities, not “correcting” through colonial systems. As Fran Sugar and Lana Fox said in their 1989 report to the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women: “How can we be healed by those who symbolize the worst experiences of our past?”

Article 6 of the Rome Statute defines genocide as including acts that cause serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. These acts must be committed intentionally to meet the definition of genocide.

Prisons do these things to Indigenous peoples. But are these acts intentional?

The Canadian government spends more than half-a-billion dollars each year imprisoning Indigenous peoples, while it denies funding to Indigenous communities to provide healing services. It significantly under-funds Indigenous-run healing lodges, which are available to less than four percent of Indigenous peoples in prison, despite a 2016 Auditor General report that found Indigenous peoples released from a healing lodge were more likely to successfully complete their community supervision than those released from minimum-security prisons.

The problem is not a lack of will among Indigenous communities to provide healing services, but Canada’s refusal to fund these initiatives. For example, despite receiving 126 proposals from Indigenous communities to provide alternatives to incarceration and reintegration support totalling $146 million, Public Safety allocated only $10 million over five years in the 2017 federal budget for 16 of these projects, none of which appear to divert Indigenous peoples serving sentences from prisons to Indigenous communities.

Canada’s investment in systems of punishment and harm instead of Indigenous-led healing is intentional.

It is time for Canada to support Indigenous self-determination in healing services to end the genocidal practice of imprisoning Indigenous peoples in colonial prisons.