• Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’
Feb 24, 2016

By , Macleans

Canada’s crime rate just hit a 45-year low. It’s been dropping for years—down by half since peaking in 1991. Bizarrely, the country recently cleared another benchmark, when the number of people incarcerated hit an all-time high. Dig a little further into the data, and an even more disquieting picture emerges.


While admissions of white adults to Canadian prisons declined through the last decade, Indigenous incarceration rates were surging: Up 112 per cent for women. Already, 36 per cent of the women and 25 per cent of men sentenced to provincial and territorial custody in Canada are Indigenous—a group that makes up just four per cent of the national population. Add in federal prisons, and Indigenous inmates account for 22.8 per cent of the total incarcerated population.


In the U.S., the go-to example for the asymmetric jailing of minority populations, black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. In Canada, the Indigenous incarceration rate is 10 times higher than the non-Indigenous population—higher even than South Africa at the height of apartheid. In Saskatchewan, if you’re Indigenous, you’re 33 times more likely to be incarcerated, according to a 1999 report, the most recent available.


This helps explain why prison guard is among the fastest-growing public sector occupations on the Prairies. And why criminologists have begun quietly referring to Canada’s prisons and jails as the country’s “new residential schools.”


Related: Indigenous women share their stories of resilience


In some Prairie courtrooms, Indigenous defendants now make up 85 per cent of criminal caseloads, defence lawyers say. At Manitoba’s Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley, as many as nine in 10 women were Indigenous, according to one recent count. At nearby Stony Mountain Institution, Indigenous men make up 65 per cent of the inmate population. Often, they’re there because they failed to comply with a curfew or condition of bail. Or they’re a low-level drug offender, caught up in Canada’s harsh new mandatory-minimum sentences.


That’s one reason for the upsurge. In the past decade, Stephen Harper’s government passed more than 30 new crime laws, hiking punishment for a wide range of crimes, limiting parole opportunities and also broadening the grounds used to send young offenders to jail.


But the problem isn’t just new laws. Although police “carding” in Toronto has put street checks, which disproportionately target minority populations, under the microscope, neither is racial profiling alone to blame. At every step, discriminatory practices and a biased system work against an Indigenous accused, from the moment a person is first identified by police, to their appearance before a judge, to their hearing before a parole board. The evidence is unambiguous: If you happen to be Indigenous, justice in Canada is not blind.




Chapter 1 – The street check

On Dec. 10, 2014, Simon Ash-Moccasin, a Regina teacher, actor and playwright, was walking to a holiday party for Briarpatch magazine, where he sits as a board member. He says officers began tailing him as he approached Casino Regina in the city’s downtown core. Ash-Moccasin “fit a description,” he was told after asking why he was being stopped. “I know which one that is,” the Cree-Saulteaux 41-year-old later told Maclean’s. “There’s only one.”


Ash-Moccasin has a good understanding of arrest protocol thanks to an acting gig with the Saskatchewan Police College, teaching trainee officers how not to collar a suspect. He plays the bad guy.


In real life, Ash-Moccasin initially refused to give his name. An officer threw him against a wall, he says. One attempted to cuff him without reading him his rights. He says he was shoved, headfirst, into the backseat. He was briefly detained until his record check came back clean. Before being released, officers told Ash-Moccasin, who was wearing a distinctive green camouflage jacket, that they were looking for an Indigenous man dressed all in black, with no front teeth, trying to hawk a TV.


Ash-Moccasin is among several Indigenous men and women in Prairie cities who allege they are being unfairly, and illegally, singled out. In June 2015, Maclean’s (working with Vancouver’s Discourse Media) attempted to figure out whether their experiences are indicative of a larger issue. Eight Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were filed with major Western Canadian police agencies, looking for race-specific data on discretionary police stops for jaywalking and arrests for drug possession. In the end, they didn’t supply any data. The Edmonton Police Service estimated that producing one set of data—for instance, race-specific data on arrests for drug possession—would cost Maclean’s $7,693. In Saskatchewan, municipal police are exempted from Freedom of Information laws, and the Regina Police Service instructed their legal counsel to refuse the request.



Related from Discourse Media: Survey indicates Indigenous people targeted by police in the Prairie provinces


To approach the issue from a different perspective, Maclean’s and Discourse Media (with the support of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression) surveyed more than 850 post-secondary students in Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, to see whether there was any difference in the likelihood of being stopped for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.


Survey results show the odds of an Indigenous student from the sampled population being stopped by police were 1.6 times higher than a non-Indigenous student, holding all other explanatory variables (like gender and age) fixed. Indigenous students will be stopped more frequently, the study indicates; whether or not they were engaged in or close to an illegal activity when stopped by police had little influence in explaining the results. This suggests staying out of trouble does not shield Indigenous student from unwanted police attention.


The survey produced other unsettling data. Indigenous students were more likely to “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that their racial group is viewed positively by police. An Indigenous student had a 69 to 84 per cent chance of “disagreeing” or “strongly disagreeing,” depending on their age; a non-Indigenous student had a 10 to 21 per cent chance of responding the same way. Students were also asked to share three words that they feel describe police officers. The most common words non-Indigenous students associate with police—“helpful,” “authority”—differed dramatically from those chosen by Indigenous students: “racist,” “scary.”