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Canada’s National Travesty – Prison Indigenization

The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population has been described as being “nothing short of a national travesty.”

This highly damning indictment was advanced by Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, the country’s federal prison ombudsperson, in a news release issued on 21 January 2020.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

The Correctional Investigator stated:

“Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population. At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30%.”

In the news release Dr. Zinger suggests that surpassing the 30% mark indicates a deepening Indigenization of Canada’s correctional system. 

In the absence of any domestic OPCAT monitoring body in Canada, the Correctional Investigator plays a vital role in monitoring the treatment and conditions of federal prisoners in the country. Dr. Zinger has repeatedly called on Canada to sign and ratify the OPCAT.

Shockingly, the Correctional Investigator stressed that the numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42% of the women prisoner population in Canada, despite just forming a small percentage of the overall population. He added that the federal prison service seems impervious to change and unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.

What is more, the experiences of many Indigenous persons in federal facilities are mostly far from positive, rehabilitative episodes.

It was observed that year after year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented that Indigenous prisoners are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum security institutions, over-represented in use of force and self-injurious incidents, and historically, were more likely to be placed and held longer in segregation units.

Moreover, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole, the press article stated.

Another key Canadian human rights actor, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, threw its full weight behind the federal ombudsperson’s highly critical findings. Marie-Claude Landry, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, underlined the following in a press statement issued the same day:

“The Commission is deeply disturbed by the recent findings of the Office of the Correctional Investigator that the proportion of Indigenous people in federal prisons has now surpassed a staggering 30% of the total inmate population.”

“This is a national disgrace. We strongly agree with the Correctional Investigator that bold and urgent action is required to address this persistent and pressing human rights issue.”

The leading National Indigenous Organization for women, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was equally as scathing in its condemnation. In its own response NWAC President Lorraine Whitman commented:

“It is time that Canada recognizes the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in correctional systems. These findings are a symptom of historical and current systems of colonialism, racism and sexism against First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women.”

“All levels of government need to take real action now to reduce the number of incarcerated Indigenous peoples.”

The organization also threw a spotlight on both the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls for Justice from 2019 and the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action from 2015. Both reports demand transformative change within Canada’s criminal justice system. 

Whether the federal Canadian authorities will muster the political will to act on these recommendations remains to be seen. Even so, the Correctional Investigator’s findings underpin the absolute importance of the need to exercise independent oversight of the country’s closed institutions, more so in the absence of an OPCAT-based National Preventive Mechanism. It can only be hoped that the federal prison estate can be pulled back from its current disastrous Indigenization trajectory.


Read the Correctional Investigator’s statement in English and French.

Learn more about Dr. Zinger’s views in support of the OPCAT.

See the statement of the Canadian Human Rights Commission in English and French.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s press release.

Explore the joint 2019 report of the Office of the Canadian Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Aging and Dying in Prison.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Oversight bodies, Prisons, Women prisoners