“No prisons on stolen land”: Protests draw attention to the incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Canada

Published by Brent Patterson on

The #FreeThemAll march in Ottawa said: “No prisons on stolen land.”

On March 20, a national day of action highlighted the impact of the COVD-19 pandemic on prisoners in Canada, notably Indigenous peoples.

In late January, University of Ottawa criminology professor Justin Piché stated that there have been more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 in the federal prison system and more than 5,000 in the correctional system overall.

In Canada, if a person is sentenced to less than two years they go to a provincial jail, for sentences over two years they go to a federal prison.

In 2015, the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended: “We call upon federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.”

And yet MacLean’s magazine reports: “There are more than 12,500 inmates in our federal system: Nearly one-third of them are Indigenous, eight per cent are black. Upwards of three-quarters of the prison population in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are Indigenous.”

That article commented: “Our prison system is racist.”

Radio Canada International further notes: “Government statistics from 2016 show that Indigenous people in Canada make up five per cent of the population … yet make up more than 30 per cent of those behind bars.”

Correctional Investigator (a federal ombudsperson for prisons) Ivan Zinger says: “I am particularly concerned by the fact that Indigenous inmates accounted for close to 60% of all positive COVID-19 cases in Canadian prisons since November.”

The United Nations has also expressed concern about the health-related implications of incarceration during the pandemic.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had stated at the part of the pandemic that governments must work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention. And the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said: “We urge Member States and the international community to include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak of COVID 19.”

The Correctional Service of Canada, which operates 53 federal prisons across the country, has an annual budget of about $2.6 billion.

Millions more are spent on provincial systems. For instance, the budget in Saskatchewan for “custody, supervision and rehabilitation services” is about $187 million. About 75 per cent of the inmates in that provincial system are Indigenous. About 65 per cent of the inmates in the federal prisons in Saskatchewan are Indigenous.

Abolition feminism envisions a society in which this money would be directed toward the public good and addressing systemic inequalities and where “safety and security will not be premised on violence or the threat of violence.”

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