Aboriginal people make up a disproportionately high number of inmates within the federal prison system and as of November 8, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will be gathering stories from inmates in order to find out why.
The recent numbers released by the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2011-2012 showed that the Aboriginal inmate population has increased by 37.3% in the last ten years, while the population of non-Aboriginal inmates has only increased by 2.4%. Yet only approximately 4% of Canada’s population is Aboriginal.
While the TRC has visited provincial and territorial correctional institutions, this will be the first visit to a federal facility. The TRC will spend two days at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Riverbend Institution in Prince Albert recording the oral histories of inmates whose families spent time at Indian Residential Schools.
Until recently, the experiences suffered at the Indian Residential Schools were mostly unknown to the majority of Canadians. The 150-year history of the schools included the murdering of children, sterilization programs, torture, sexual abuse, forced assimilation, jail sentences for parents who refused to send their children to the schools, and the eradication of Aboriginal cultures and languages.
Poor sanitation, overcrowding, and a lack of medical services were commonalities. The schools often left children unable to fit in with their Aboriginal societies when they returned to their homes, and yet many were simultaneously unaccepted by non-Aboriginal communities.
While these may sound like actions from the distant past, the last Indian Residential School wasn’t closed until 1996. Funding was provided by the Department of Indian Affairs and Christian churches oversaw the operation of the schools.
After the passing of the 1876 Indian Act, Residential Schools became widespread throughout Canada. Reports state that as early as 1909 the Canadian government was aware of the abuses inflicted on students, and that a high number of Residential School children were dying from illnesses like tuberculosis due to deliberate infection and inadequate treatment. However, nothing was done to improve the conditions following this information. Instead, the government simply fired the man who had compiled the report.
The number of deaths that occurred in Residential Schools is still unknown, but one of the objectives of the TRC is to get an estimate by gathering information from individual sources. The ultimate goal of the TRC is reconciliation so that a process of healing can begin.
The Canadian government created the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in the late 1990s, and in 2003 launched the Alternative Dispute Resolution process in order to provide compensation and support for those who were abused in the schools. As well, in 2005 the government created a $1.9 billion compensation package, which has been partly used to fund the TRC. The Canadian government also issued a formal apology in 2008 for the creation and operation of the Indian Residential Schools.
Despite attempts to compensate for the damage created by the Indian Residential Schools, survivors are still suffering the effects.
Some argue that the Indian Residential Schools have simply been replaced by prisons. The findings of the report revealed that Aboriginal offenders were more likely than others to have their parole revoked, have day or full parole denied, to return to prison for repeat offenses, and to be involved in self-harm incidents while in a correctional institution.
Despite the Canadian government’s compensation packages and apologies, the issue of racist practices still persists. Currently, one-in-five inmates are Aboriginal, but if things do not change, the numbers will be one-in-four in the near future.
The solution put forth in the report to address these numbers is to devote a proportionate and equivalent investment in resources, people, programs, and priorities for those of Aboriginal descent. However, this solution is vague and simply advocates throwing more money at a system of compensation that has at this point been unsuccessful.
Poverty, crime, isolation, and lack of infrastructure continue to be the norm on many Aboriginal reservations. The effects of what some may call a genocide are long lasting, and there are no easy solutions.
Reconciliation is a process that will take many decades, but until the Canadian government is willing to address the racist practices that persist at several layers of society, and especially within the prison system, the effects of these practices will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.