For Immediate Release
Ottawa, November 2, 2023 – On November 1, 2023, the 50th Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator was tabled in Parliament. The report includes the second of a two-part update of the Office’s original 2013 Special Report to Parliament titled, Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
A decade after the release of Spirit Matters, the Office now reports that the proportion of over-representation of Indigenous people has increased from 23% of the overall incarcerated population to 32% today (representing 4,200 Indigenous persons). Even more alarming, Indigenous women now account for half of all women in Canadian penitentiaries. The Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, stated:
“In the decade since Spirit Matters was released, it is astonishing that the rate of Indigenous over-representation has increased unabated. Canada’s correctional population is becoming disturbingly and unconscionably Indigenized. On nearly every measure of correctional performance – time spent behind bars before first release, placements in maximum-security institutions, involvement in use of force, recidivism and revocation rates, suicide and self-injury, placement in restrictive confinement units – the correctional system seems to perpetuate conditions of disadvantage and discrimination for Indigenous people.”
Part Two of the Spirit Matters update documents the often-missing voices, experiences and testimonies of incarcerated Indigenous people. It includes insights and perspectives of Elders, who provide spiritual, cultural and advisory services inside federal prisons. These first-hand accounts are featured in three in-depth investigations examining signature interventions in the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) overall Indigenous Corrections strategy:
Unfulfilled Promises: Investigation of Healing Lodges in Canada’s Federal Correctional System
Investigation of the Role and Impact of Elders in Federal Corrections
A Straight and Narrow Road: Investigation into the Pathways Initiative in Federal Corrections
Though well intentioned, the investigation finds that these interventions are short-reaching. Total discretionary spending for Indigenous Initiatives within CSC, inclusive of Healing Lodges, Pathways and Elders, amounts to just $75M annually, representing about 3% of CSC’s total budget.
On Healing Lodges, the investigation notes that only 2% of all Indigenous people under federal custody are serving their sentence in a community-run Section 81 Healing Lodge. Ten years after Spirit Matters, only one new Section 81 Healing Lodge has been created. There are still no Healing Lodges in the Ontario or Atlantic Regions, none in the North and no community-run facility in the Pacific region. For Indigenous women, all three Healing Lodges are located in the Prairie Region. As the Correctional Investigator notes, “Neither the intent or the original vision of Healing Lodges is being met.”
Beyond limited capacity, an even bigger problem is the entrenchment of a two-tiered Healing Lodge system where CSC (or state-run) Healing Lodges are funded, staffed, resourced and occupied at significantly higher levels than their Section 81 community counterparts. Dr. Zinger stated:
“It is simply unacceptable that the federal government spends approximately two times more on CSC or state-run Healing Lodges, or 40% less per resident in community versus state-run facilities. A two-tiered Healing Lodge system means that these facilities are in constant competition with one another for resources, staff and residents. This state of affairs is wasteful and makes no sense. I call upon the federal government to return state-run Healing Lodges to Indigenous title as originally intended.”
The investigation documents that the contributions of Elders working inside federal institutions are under-valued, under-reported and under-supported by their employer. There simply is not enough Elders to meet current needs or demands. The lack of supports, mismanagement, inadequate compensation and heavy workloads leave many Elders feeling stressed, exhausted, isolated and burned out. “We heard from Elders who told us that their roles and contributions are not well understood or respected within CSC,” commented the Correctional Investigator. “As a group, they repeatedly raised concerns about the hiring, employment and compensation structure within CSC.”
Though Elders are supposed to be afforded the same legal status as religious leaders, including Chaplains, they do not receive the same pay or benefits as Chaplains. These issues have resounding consequences, often manifested in discriminatory, derogatory or disrespectful treatment. As the Correctional Investigator concluded, “Elders working in Canada’s prisons deserve better.”
With respect to the Pathways investigation, the Office suggests that this penitentiary-based initiative serves too few federally sentenced Indigenous persons to make any tangible difference in addressing over-representation. There are approximately 350 Pathway beds spread across 22 federal correctional institutions, mostly at the medium-security level. Those waitlisted or participating in Pathways Initiatives represent only about 8% of the total Indigenous in-custody population. Moreover, the investigation found that those who participate in Pathways Initiatives could be equally or better served in non-custodial settings.
In fact, the investigation found that only the most engaged and committed prospective candidates gain entry to Pathways. As Dr. Zinger stated:
“It is clear that Pathways is not for everyone and indeed excludes most. The bar for Pathways admission and participation is set so high that only the most compliant individuals benefit. Failing to engage with or effectively excluding the majority of Indigenous prisoners perpetuates conditions of disadvantage and discrimination, leading to higher rates and longer periods of incarceration for Indigenous people. There should be more than one pathway out of a federal penitentiary.”
The update of Spirit Matters is written in a direct and unequivocal manner. It suggests that Canada’s correctional system has become largely unresponsive to the needs, realities and aspirations of Indigenous people under federal sentence. As an inherently colonial institution, Dr. Zinger believes that corrections has played a central role in the marginalization, criminalization and over-imprisonment of Indigenous peoples. Calling his report a “blueprint for change and transformation,” he encourages CSC to come to terms with its own colonial legacy and engage with the contemporary forces of Indigenous reclamation and reconciliation.
The investigation singles out paternalism and pan-Indigeneity within CSC, an approach to Indigenous Corrections that effectively erases historical and cultural differences and diversity between and among Indigenous peoples. As Dr. Zinger puts it:
“Pan-Indigeneity ignores the fact that most Indigenous peoples walk two worlds, and that diversity of Indigenous culture exists along a rich spectrum of cultures and individual identity. Culture is not a program, privilege or entitlement, and access to one’s culture should not be contingent upon one’s potential or readiness to follow a traditional healing path. It should not be seen or used as an incentive for more favourable treatment. Access to culture, ceremony and spirituality are rights, not privileges.”
The updated investigation makes 12 recommendations, directed to Government, the Minister of Public Safety and the Correctional Service, among them include:
Transfer control and ownership of existing state-run Healing Lodges to the local community.
Create a new funding model for Section 81 agreements to achieve funding parity with state-run facilities and significantly increase the number of Section 81 agreements and bed space.
Create job security and provide additional funding supports for Elders.
Expand the benefits offered by the Pathways Initiative to a larger number of incarcerated Indigenous individuals.
Develop and implement a national Indigenous decarceration strategy.
This year’s Annual Report also includes a number of significant national policy and operational updates including dry cell detention, the rising cost of living behind bars (inmate pay), patient advocacy services and gender diversity.
As the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders, the Office of the Correctional Investigator serves Canadians and contributes to safe, lawful and humane corrections through independent oversight of the Correctional Service of Canada by providing accessible, impartial and timely investigation of individual and systemic concerns.The 2022-23 Annual Report, along with two Backgrounders, are available at https://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/en/reports/annual.
“This report shows that Inuit are not only grossly over-represented in the federal correctional system; it also details the lack of Inuit-specific assessments and supports that further compounds this issue.
At its root, over-incarceration points to a lack of basic needs being met to address the health and wellness of Inuit across Inuit Nunangat. Inuit communities in Canada face high poverty rates, inadequate housing and an unavailability of health care services, all factors in marginalization. ITK calls on the federal government for a strong investment in addressing the needs of Inuit as they’re identified in this report.”
Natan Obed, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
“While these updated findings released by the Correctional Investigator are startling, they are not surprising. Métis Governments have been clear that the over-incarceration rate of Métis in the criminal justice system is due to the lack of long-term sustainable funding to address the issues caused by the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples by Canada's federal, provincial, and territorial governments.
It is imperative that the Government of Canada take a proactive and reactive approach to address the inequalities Indigenous peoples face in incarceration. Proactively, a policy of decarceration must be co-developed and implemented with Métis governments to ensure those Métis incarcerated can be supported in their communities. Reactively, Canada must commit to significant, long-term, sustainable funding to Indigenous governments to best support their people and communities specifically to end over-incarceration.”
Cassidy Caron, President of Métis National Council
The findings of the updated report not only reflect the reality of over-incarceration of Indigenous people but also underline the deep-rooted systemic issues causing this crisis. A decade after the Spirit Matters report, it's disheartening to see that our communities remain disproportionally represented in the correctional system. These numbers aren't just statistics – they represent people, families, and communities impacted. We must work collaboratively to address these issues, including Canada's correctional approach towards Indigenous people, and ensure our communities have access to justice, cultural understanding, and rehabilitation.”
- Ghislain Picard, AFN Québec-Labrador Regional Chief
For more information, please contact:
Ms. Monette Maillet