Mr. Chair, as I rise on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin nation, I am deeply grateful to participate in this very important debate on the experience of indigenous peoples within Canada's justice system.
As vice-chair of the status of women committee, I have listened to compelling testimony while we studied the overrepresentation of indigenous women in the justice system. Indigenous women are overrepresented in all aspects of the criminal justice system in Canada. Indigenous women in Canada experience violence at a rate almost three times that of non-indigenous women, and report experiencing more severe forms of violence than other women. The rate of sexual assault of indigenous women is three times higher than for non-indigenous women. They are also overrepresented as victims of homicide.
Between 2008 and 2017, the number of indigenous women inmates increased at the alarming rate of 60%.
Indigenous women and girls grow up facing intergenerational trauma as a result of parents who never learned to parent because of the impact of colonial policies, such as the residential school system and the sixties scoop; lack of mental health supports in the community; addiction; poverty; violence and abuse; and lack of access to education. One thing is very clear. The justice system has failed indigenous women every step of the way.
I had the privilege of visiting five corrections facilities in Edmonton last month, including the Edmonton Institution for Women and the Buffalo Sage Wellness centre, a healing lodge run by the Native Counselling Services of Alberta. At Buffalo Sage, I had the honour of taking part in the circle with Elder Vicki and hearing from female offenders, women who had survived what life had thrown at them and are now on a healing journey immersed in their culture, on the road to rehabilitation and reintegration, women who had attacked and escaped violent abusers and themselves ended up in prison, women whose lack of housing and poverty led them into the criminal justice system, and women who lost their children to the foster care system. These women are warriors whose strength is beyond anything I have ever seen.
I also had the privilege of visiting Pê Sâkâstêw, a men's healing lodge, where I had a memorable meeting with a 39-year old who first came into the justice system at 12 years old as a young offender. After a life in and out of jail, one that included abuse and addictions, he is serving a sentence for robbery, and is now on his own successful healing journey. He lives as a man in prison and as a woman outside, and prefers the “he” pronoun. He is on work release in the community. He has reconnected with his community for the first time in 20 years. He is another person with tremendous strength who is connecting with his culture, and that connection is guiding him on his healing journey. I can honestly say I will never forget him or any of the people I met over those two days.
During the study, we heard that women are the fastest-growing prison population, and indigenous women make up close to 70% of the prison population in some institutions. Mandatory minimums do not work. In fact, we heard they lead to higher rates of recidivism. If we really want to get tough on crime, we will stop sending people to jail, people whose poverty and life circumstances have put them in the criminal justice system. We should start treating the problems that brought them into the criminal justice system.
I met a woman at the Edmonton Institution for Women whose life would have been much different if she had been sentenced two days earlier, two days before mandatory minimums came in to effect. We heard from countless witnesses that mandatory minimums need to go, and that judges need discretion in sentencing.
The need for restorative justice has been heard time and time again. The Gladue reports provide recommendations to the court about appropriate sentencing and factors to be considered during sentencing, such as background, abuse, underlying issues such as FASD or substance use, residential schools, and more. This was a right won at the Supreme Court of Canada. However, Gladue reports are not always used properly. Not all provinces even have trained writers to prepare Gladue reports. We heard that in many circumstances, these reports are actually used against the offenders at parole hearings.
With respect to other issues, we heard about the lack of access to adequate representation during trial. We heard about the need for civil legal aid to assist women in gaining custody of their children or with other matters in family court. We heard that lawyers, judges, and police officers often lack awareness of the impacts of colonialism and colonial practices such as the residential schools. We heard about the need for culturally appropriate trauma-informed education for those who work in the criminal justice system. We heard about the need to reach out to communities to recruit more indigenous police officers, parole officers, corrections officers, lawyers, and judges, and about providing the supports to ensure their success in their chosen field.
We heard that victims of crime were afraid to go to the police. Certainly, the recent case of an indigenous woman who was sexually assaulted, who was jailed for five days to ensure she would testify against her assailant and was even transported in the same van with her assailant to court, illustrates that the fear indigenous women have is very real.
Nearly half of all indigenous offenders were removed from their homes in childhood. I applaud the commitment of our Minister of Indigenous Services to fix this broken foster care system. Enhanced mental health services and the need for those services 24/7 are sorely needed within the corrections institutes as is the proper diagnosis, treatment, and support for those living with FASD.
The previous government did away with accelerated parole, which was designed for low-risk, non-violent offenders to be released from prison at the earliest possible date to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community, thus providing a better chance for their rehabilitation and reintegration. We need to reinstate this important tool to remove indigenous women from prisons and put them back into their communities.
Indigenous women who find themselves in the correction system also need greater supports in the community upon release. Too often women find themselves without safe and affordable housing, and without a job. One witness described it like legs of a stool. Without all four legs, the stool collapses. Take away housing and employment and the woman most certainly will collapse, ending up back in the cycle of poverty, perhaps in an abusive relationship, or a return to jail.
One of the most concerning things we heard was that the prison classification system was designed for men but it was used to women. The result is that more women are sent to maximum security prisons where they have less programming in general, less opportunities for culturally-appropriate programs, more segregation, and less family contact.
Two provisions of Corrections and Conditional Release Act should be used more: section 81 and section 84. Section 81 allows for indigenous communities to oversee the care and custody of indigenous offenders who would otherwise be in a federal prison. Section 84 allows for an indigenous community to propose a plan for an interested and consenting indigenous inmate's release and reintegration in the community.
My time is limited tonight, so I am not able to list all of the issues facing indigenous women in the justice system. However, I encourage all members to read our report and recommendations when it is complete.
Our government is listening to the voices of indigenous women and girls. In budget 2017, our government provided long-term and stable investment in the indigenous justice program; and programs to divert offenders from Main Street courts in appropriate circumstances or community-based justice programs, leading to transformative change in the lives of individuals, families, and communities by providing an opportunity to address underlying issues of addiction and mental health concerns.
Our government also committed to provide $65.2 million over five years and $10.9 million a year thereafter to address the overrepresentation of indigenous offenders in the criminal justice system and help previously incarcerated indigenous people heal, rehabilitate, and find employment in the community.
In addition, through the indigenous community corrections initiative, our government will provide contribution funding to support training and capacity building within indigenous communities to help them implement community-based projects that will assist in the reintegration of indigenous offenders and provide alternatives to incarceration both on reserve and in urban centres.
I will close by paraphrasing a witness from the Indigenous Bar Association in Canada who said that:
Indigenous women have lived on this land for 15,000 years, and for 14,850 of those years, they were strong leaders in the community. We can and must return them to this role and can only do that by working side-by-side with indigenous people to fix the criminal justice system.