Recently the Star Phoenix printed a story called “Prisons Failing Aboriginal Inmates” March 7, 2013. I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, it’s old news to me, and many other Aboriginal people in the country.
To me, the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in Canadian prisons only reflects the latest form of segregation in a long history of racist policies and systems that Aboriginals have had no say in. It is the latest form of apartheid.
If you are unfamiliar with apartheid, it was a system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was voted in as the country’s first black president in 1994 and apartheid was finally put to an end.
We can blame Canada for that one.
South Africa’s National Party government officials paid a visit to Canada in the 1940s to see how segregation worked. They saw our reservations, and our pass and permit systems in full swing and loved the idea! Who knew division of races could be so simple? Apartheid was instantly born in South Africa.
Oh but segregation in Canada didn’t end with reserves, not by a long shot. I think one of the absolutely most destructive things to happen to Aboriginal people was the creation of residential schools.
Here segregation was two-fold: children were forcibly removed from their reserves, and also their families. Then they were kept in schools and fed foreign languages, cultures and worldviews, with the intent to completely assimilate them. The abuse many of these children endured is heartbreaking, and in fact, many died as a result.
But segregation didn’t end there either. There was also the ’60s scoops, where Aboriginal children were plucked from their families and placed in white homes across the country. For a period of approximately 20 years as many as 20,000 children were removed from their homes. This wasn’t adoption by choice. Some believe this was a deliberate act of genocide.
So now you might understand why the idea of locking up all the Indians doesn’t shock me. But they’re all criminals! You might say. True. Some probably are. I’m sure most of them did break the law, and maybe some even took delight in it, real career criminals.
But with a history of oppression and segregation, are you really surprised any of them broke the law?
Here’s why I think our prison systems deserve a big, fat, failing grade: Indians never needed them. First Nations people had exactly zero prisons before contact.
That doesn’t mean life was perfect before contact. So long as you put any group of people together, you will eventually have conflict. Different personalities tend to bring about differences of opinion. But First Nations people had their own ways of dealing with conflict in their communities.
I’m not saying that prisons don’t have a place in our current society. I realize there are some seriously dangerous offenders and prisons are necessary. But I am saying that if Aboriginal people make up four per cent of Canada’s population and yet comprise 23 per cent of the total prison population, we have a huge problem.
The answer doesn’t lie in building more prisons and maintaining the status quo. The country’s prison watchdog, Howard Sapers, recommends Correctional Service Canada should create the position of deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections and should expand corrections’ staff training to include aboriginal history and culture.
Sapers also recommends more healing lodges be created as many Aboriginal inmates expressed interest in them.
Of course, those might be band-aid approaches at best. I know what my aunt would say, who was a brilliant Indigenous scholar and lawyer before she passed away. She believed that where Aboriginals were concerned, we have a legal system in Canada, not a justice system. In order for it to be considered a justice system, people must be delivered fair and just treatment, which she didn’t believe existed for many Aboriginals; not from arrest through to sentencing and all the way to parole.
In fact, she believed that Aboriginal people needed to return to taking control of their own methods of justice in their communities, utilizing Elders and traditional methods to rectify any conflicts in question. The trouble with our Canadian prisons lies in the imposition of yet another foreign system in dealing with Aboriginal people.
It should not be a question of accommodating Aboriginal inmates into a foreign system, helping them to better fit “the mold”, or helping the mold better fit them.
There would definitely be learning curves as Aboriginal communities assumed greater control of their own justice initiatives, because adjustments would be needed to deliver traditional methods to current problems. Things like alcohol abuse and domestic abuse were non-existent before contact, and so new methods of conflict resolution might be required, but I believe they would eventually be far more effective and recidivism rates would decrease dramatically.
How would two separate justice systems even work? Well, I think they would differ from community to community. The needs of a Mohawk or Mi’kmaq community would likely be very different from those of a Cree or Dene community.
It might be frustrating to imagine, but this is the direction we are moving in, the direction we need to move in. Consider this, if you still need convincing. If you were married, would you submit total control to your husband or wife? Would you have a happy arrangement if they created all the rules and you ultimately broke them and were subsequently locked in a room of your house? Who would blame you if you had no say in the rule-making and the “laws” of the household didn’t reflect your needs?
If you have difficulty imagining life under a fascist agreement (which you had the luxury of agreeing to), then you know why the prison system is currently failing Aboriginal inmates.
There will definitely be jurisdiction issues at first, but I think the best solution is to stop telling Aboriginal people what they need and instead, give them the room to figure out what that is.