Indigenous Rights and Prison Reform (And why it matters to all Canadians)

Every Child Matters

Every Child Matters

Next Thursday will be Orange Shirt Day, the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It is a day spent reflecting on the history of abuse and institutionalized racism in Canada, highlighted by the residential school system. Over this past year, we have learned some genuinely chilling and devastating truths about our history.

It’s a step in the right direction to acknowledge the horrors of our past. Still, the reality is that institutional racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada is an ongoing problem. The appalling residential school chapter might be finished, but this story has not yet ended. The plight of Indigenous peoples in Canada continues today – this is our present, and we cannot ignore it.

Elizabeth Fry Society

I am not Indigenous and can only speak to the issues through my own lens. I have been a volunteer and supporter of the Elizabeth Fry Society for many years and am distressed at the state of our justice system – particularly when it comes to our Indigenous population. For those new to the organization, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary “offers pathways to healing through supports and advocacy, for women and marginalized populations who are affected by systemic social issues which can contribute to criminalization.”

Our focus is on women within and getting out of the justice system. We help them get back into society in a way that they are not crippled by their incarceration: financially, psychologically or socially. This is anecdotal, but when I first learned about Elizabeth Fry, one fact broke my heart and spurred me to join and continue with this work. There are two times of year crime by women goes up substantially, August and December. These times coincide with Back to School and Christmas. Many women offenders, often living in poverty, are trying to provide for their children as best they can. Instead, they can end up in the prison system.

That’s why I joined. And while Elizabeth Fry may have as a mandate to support women, you can’t look at the prison system without understanding that the population most targeted by the justice system is Indigenous, both male and female.

Photo by Caroline Martins on

Underprivileged and overrepresented

The numbers are startling. Indigenous men make up 28% of inmates in federal institutions; Indigenous women 40%. The overall population of Indigenous peoples in Canada is 4%. These numbers (from 2017/2018) have grown from the 2008/2009 numbers, which are 20% and 32%, respectively. So not only are things really bad, they’re getting worse. You can delve further into the numbers from the 2017/2018 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, who called the numbers “distressing.”

Many causes have led to the uptick in Indigenous incarceration, and you can bet they’re rooted in racism. And go all the way back to the residential schools that horrify us so. It’s estimated 150 000 Indigenous, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families between 1870 and 1990, with the goal of “assimilating” them into Canadian colonial society. In doing so, it caused a nationwide disruption of community ties, tearing families apart. The entire project was rooted in racism and amounted to cultural genocide. You can read more about that here.

History of Residential Schools

A similar family disruptor happened with the Sixties Scoop. The list of indignities and harms goes on and on. As a result of this harm, there has been intergenerational trauma, where an entire group or culture suffers. The consequences of that suffering are taken up and learned by the next generation. Without intervention, the cycle of institutional suffering continues, devastating to our entire society, not only Indigenous peoples.

Some great information on the Canadian Department of Justice website to help understand contributing factors to the indigenous overrepresentation in the justice system can be found here.

Things are Terrible; What Can I Do?

I love that these issues are being brought to light and that people are paying attention. It’s important, and I encourage everyone to wear an orange shirt on September 30. A society that lets down part of its people is broken, and we are all the weaker for it.

But, you can probably guess, it’s not really enough. Changes to the system by necessity need to be brought about within the system. The Canadian Justice system requires a significant overhaul, and how Indigenous peoples are treated is a huge part of that. Using ideas of restorative justice, which operates on the principles of actually healing, allowing the victim of crime and the community to play roles in the reparation of the damage. There are even special courts (Gladue courts) set up to deal with Indigenous offenders that take into consideration the offender’s societal background. It’s an awesome idea and isn’t used nearly enough. Which goes and breaks my heart again.

Beyond contacting your MP to let them know this is a big deal to you and demanding to know what’s going to be done about it, you can always make a donation to support Indigenous groups. The Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, as a non-profit, is always looking for support, and donations can be made here. Here is a list of other Canadian non-profits focusing on Indigenous peoples.

Another great thing to do is get educated! The Calgary Public Library has excellent curated booklists to get you going in the right direction. Adult fiction and non-fiction books, written by Indigenous authors, will light the way of truth in these difficult times. And best of all, we need to cultivate an understanding and love of Indigenous culture with the next generation, to bring all our children up in peace. A list of family storytime books by indigenous authors can be found here

For anyone experiencing distress with the content of this blog, the Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.

One thought on “Indigenous Rights and Prison Reform (And why it matters to all Canadians)

  1. Pingback: How to Save Money and Make Our Country Safer | Cordelia Kelly

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