Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Captive Nations: Ombudsman Slams Justice System's Treatment of First Nations

The Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report on Monday blasting the federal Correctional Service for its treatment of the First Nations in Canada. First Nations peoples make up 18.5 per cent of the prison population despite being only 2.7 per cent of the population of Canada and are nine times more likely to go to jail than the population at large. In Western provinces the situation is even worse, where Natives make up 60 percent of the inmate population.

Once inside the justice system, First Nations fare worse than non-First Nations. They are less likely to get sentenced to community supervision and are frequently "over-classified" - ie. sent to maximum security instead of medium - forcing them to serve their time far from their homes, families, elders, and communities. They have less access to rehabilitative services, such as education, job training, or addictions counseling. They are released much later into their sentences and are more likely to get their parole yanked and sent back to prison on technical grounds.

While this injustice has grown worse in recent years, it is hardly new. "Despite years of task force reports, internal reviews, national strategies, partnership agreements and action plans, there has been no measurable improvements in the conditions for aboriginal offenders during the last 20 years," Sapers said. The pattern of sweeping the problem under the rug continues, as Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said he would "take the report under consideration" but denied that there was any evidence of systemic discrimination against First Nations in the prison system.

Such avoidance makes sense, since having impoverished and locked-up First Nations communities benefits powerful interests in our society. The First Nations have repeatedly and consistently struggled to defend their sovereignty and land rights, arousing the ire of the government and their corporate backers. Traditional, unceded First Nations territory includes lucrative fishing areas on the East and West coasts, massive oil and uranium deposits in the prairies, hydroelectric projects in northern Quebec, rich logging areas all over Canada, and more. Even those lands that lack natural resources are still be considered useful - as dumping grounds for solid or toxic waste that would be politically unacceptable in richer, whiter, parts of the country. As long as we have a government in power that views strong, vibrant, First Nations communities as a threat to their power and control - rather than allies in the struggle for justice - we can look forward to another decade of government stonewalling, sabotage, denial, and repression.