Canada imprisoning Indigenous people more under Trudeau

During Trudeau’s first 6 years in power, the proportion of inmates who are Indigenous increased by 5.1% a year, more than under Harper.

Two years ago, the Office of the Correctional Investigator issued a release regarding the incarceration of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons.

In that release, Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, reported that Indigenous people make up over 30% of the incarcerated population in Canada, the first time it has ever been that high.

In 2001, it was 17.59%.

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Here’s the graph that accompanied the story:

In a statement released last month, Zinger’s office claimed that this proportion increased even more in 2021, hitting 32%.

There are a few things I found interesting in this data.

During the first 6 years of the chart—while Jean Chrétien and then Paul Martin were prime minister—Indigenous people went from making up 17.59% of the incarcerated population to about 18.74%. That’s an increase of 6.5%, or about 1.1% a year.

While Stephen Harper was prime minister—between 2006 and 2015—the rate at which that proportion increased went up. Indigenous people made up 24.56% in 2015, a jump of 31.1%. That comes to an average annual increase of roughly 3.5%.

During the first 6 years of Justin Trudeau’s administration, these numbers jumped even more.

When Zinger released his findings last month, the latest figure had Indigenous people making up 32%, a new record high.

Since Trudeau was first elected, the numbers have increased 30.3%. That certainly seems less than the total increase under Harper’s government, but keep in mind that Harper’s was spread out over 9 years.

If we look at the average annual increase under Trudeau, we notice that the proportion increases 5.1% a year. If it continues at this rate, then Indigenous people could make up 37.1% by the time Trudeau is in for 9 years. That’d be a total increase of 51.04% over 2015’s numbers.

Clearly neither the federal government under Harper nor Trudeau has done an effective job addressing this issue.

Not only that, but last month’s statement showed that the proportion of women in custody who are Indigenous has also been increasing, and has nearly reached 50%.

Here’s a chart that was provided in last month’s statement.

And here’s one showing the numbers as a percentage of the total.

In the last 10 years, Indigenous women have gone from making up 34.44% of the total incarcerated women population to 48.45%. And that’s despite promises by the Trudeau government of a nation-to-nation relationship.

Last month, Zinger said that if Indigenous women pass the 50% threshold, it’d suggest that “efforts to reverse the Indigenization of Canada’s correctional population are not having the desired effect and that much bolder and swifter reforms are required.”

He also called the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prison system is one of the “most pressing human rights issues” for the country and that it’s proof that “public policy failures over successive decades as no government has been able to stop or reverse this trend.”

Zinger’s 2020 release wasn’t just about the above numbers, however; he made other disturbing points regarding Indigenous inmates:

  • More likely to be placed in maximum security institutions
  • More likely to be victims of use of force incidents
  • More likely to be involved in self-injurious incidents
  • More likely to be placed in solitary confinement
  • More likely to be held longer in solitary confinement
  • Serve more of their sentence behind bars before granted parole
  • Higher recidivism levels

The Office of the Correctional Investigator’s 2019–2020 Annual Report (OCIAR), its most recent version, also has some findings specific to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people within the corrections system.

General population

In January 2020, I issued a press release and statement to record the fact that Indigenous over-representation in federal custody had reached a new historic high, surpassing the 30% mark. While accounting for 5% of the general Canadian population, the number of federally sentenced Indigenous people has been steadily increasing for decades.

OCIAR, p. 20


A recent national recidivism study shows that Indigenous people reoffend or are returned to custody at much higher levels, as high as 65% for Indigenous men in the Prairie region within 5 years of release. A higher rate of readmission to custody (revocations or reoffending) suggests shortcomings in the system’s capacity to prepare and assist Indigenous offenders to live a lawabiding life after release from custody.

OCIAR, p. 20

In-prison treatment

Consistently poorer correctional outcomes for Indigenous offenders
(e.g. more likely to be placed or classified as maximum security, more likely to be involved in use of force and self-injury incidents, less likely to be granted conditional release) suggests that federal corrections makes its own contribution to the problem of over-representation.

OCIAR, p. 20


According to the Parole Board of Canada’s 2017-2018 Performance Monitoring Report, Indigenous prisoners had the

  • highest proportion of their sentence served before their first federal day parole release (at 42%).
  • highest proportion of their sentence served before their first federal full parole release (at 48%).
  • lowest provincial day parole grant rate (71%)
  • lowest federal full parole grant rate (24%)
  • lowest provincial full parole grant rate (18%)
  • shortest supervision periods on day parole, full parole, and statutory release
  • lowest federal day parole completion rate (87%)
  • lowest federal full parole completion rate (81%)
  • lowest statutory completion rate (54%)

Indigenous prisoners were also the most likely, according to the 2017-2018 Performance Monitoring Report, to be readmitted on a new federal offence after completing a sentence on full parole or statutory release or after being released at warranty expiry.


And it’s not just incarceration. Indigenous people are stopped on the street at higher rates than white people.

For example, an investigation by a Lethbridge criminal law firm in 2017 found that in Lethbridge, black people were 9 times more likely to be carded than white people and Indigenous people 5 times more likely than white people.

A similar report found that Indigenous people in Edmonton are 4 times more likely to be carded than white people.

Same goes for Montréal, where a report found that Indigenous and black people are 4 and 5 times, respectively, more likely to be carded than white people.

And the more often members of a demographic are stopped by cops, the more likely it is that this demographic is apprehended more, leading to more convictions.

“But Indigenous people commit more crimes.”

This is a common counterargument I’ve heard when I’ve pointed out that Indigenous people are convicted and incarcerated at higher rates.

Technically, the data doesn’t show that Indigenous people commit crimes at a higher rate. Rather, it shows that they are convicted at a higher rate. And if they’re apprehended and carded at higher rates, it makes sense that they’d be more likely to be convicted.

But not everyone who commits a crime is convicted. And not everyone who convicted a crime—let alone is charged with one—committed one. So, it’s disingenuous to say that convictions are the same as committals.

However, even if Indigenous people do commit crime at a higher rate than non-Indigenous people, that in itself isn’t an explanation for the convictions (let alone for the ethnic disparities once prisoners are in the system).

Only two things can explain Indigenous people committing crime at a higher rate.

The first is that Indigenous people are more prone to commit crime. This is problematic because it assumes that there is a genetic component to committing crime, and that just isn’t true.

For the second, consider the following quotes.

In this interview with Radio Canada International, Marcia Anderson, the medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, indicates that there are 2 primary drivers behind the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system:

The first driver is that “due to previous government policies and ongoing colonisation which results in things like the entrenchment of poverty, the inferior access to education, lower employment rates, Indigenous people become more likely to be involved with the justice system.” She adds that these reasons also explain why there are other broad health gaps within the Canadian society.

The second driver explains Dr Anderson is “the racism these population experience in the justice system at just about every level”. According to multiple reports, Indigenous people are more likely to be arrested, charged or have those charges proceed to trial. On average, their lawyers also spend less time with them than with non-Indigenous people. Regarding their sentences, they “more likely to receive sentences to custody as opposed to other forms of sentencing like community release of probation.”

In a similar vein, the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission had this to say:

Why, in a society where justice is supposed to be blind, are the inmates of our prisons selected so overwhelmingly from a single ethnic group? Two answers suggest themselves immediately: either Aboriginal people commit a disproportionate number of crimes, or they are the victims of a discriminatory justice system. We believe that both answers are correct, but not in the simplistic sense that some people might interpret them. We do not believe, for instance, that there is anything about Aboriginal people or their culture that predisposes them to criminal behaviour. Instead, we believe that the causes of Aboriginal criminal behaviour are rooted in a long history of discrimination and social inequality that has impoverished Aboriginal people and consigned them to the margins of Manitoban society.

So even if—hypothetically speaking—there’s no racism in the justice system and Indigenous incarceration rates are simply a matter of higher committal rates, that doesn’t mean racism isn’t involved.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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