In 2019, Canada imprisoned 70% more Indigenous people than in 2001

In 2019, Indigenous people made up over 30% of the incarcerated population in Canada. In 2001, it was 17.59%.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator issued a release regarding the incarceration of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons.

In that release, Ivan Zinger, the 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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Also in the release were the following 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

There wasn’t a lot of information on the actual discrepancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous population within the penitentiary system, so I thought I’d do some digging.

I found the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s 2018–2019 Annual Report (OCIAR), its most recent version, and thought I’d summarize some of its findings specific to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people within the corrections system.

General population

In 2016–17, while only accounting for approximately 5% of Canada’s overall population, Indigenous offenders represented 23.1% of the total offender population (26.8% of the incustody population and 17.2% of the community population).

OCIAR, p. 64

This number has changed somewhat, as I indicated above. They now make up 30.04% of the prison population, while still making up only 4.9% of the general population (according to the 2016 census).

Since 2010, while the population of White inmates has decreased by 23.5%, the Indigenous population has increased by 52.1%.

OCIAR, p. 65

Also of note is that the Black population, makes up about 3.5% of the general population, yet 8% of the prison population.

The Black inmate population increased from 7% in 2008-09 to 10% in 2015-16, but has been slowly reversing. Black inmates currently now represent 8% of the total in-custody population.

OCIAR, p. 79

On the other hand, the white population in Canada is about 73%, but it’s only 52% in the prison system.

One of the most potentially impactful, but less reported demographic changes, is the relative and proportional decline in the number of White inmates, a subgroup which has steadily decreased from 66% of the total inmate population in 2008-09 to 52% in 2018-19.

OCIAR, p. 79

Finally, even though the national prison population increased by 174 since 2010, the number of Indigenous people within that population, increased by 1,423.


White offenders were the most likely to be serving their sentences on full parole in 2017/18 (those sentenced for murder, schedule I offences and non-scheduled offences). White offenders sentenced for drug offences, were more likely to be serving their sentences on day parole or statutory release.

Perfromance Monitoring Report. Parole Board of Canada. p. 12. Link

On the other hand, 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.

As well, according to the OCIAR, 71.4% of Indigenous prisoners were still in custody during 2016–2017, compared to 58.5% of non-Indigenous prisoners.

In-facility treatment

Indigenous prisoners were the most likely to be victims of use of force incidents. In fact, according to the OCIAR, in the 1,546 use of force incidents that occurred in Canadian prisons during 2018–2019, 45% of the victims were Indigenous, even though they made up only 30% of the population.

The 2016–2017 annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that Indigenous prisoners are more likely to experience solitary confinement than any other ethnic group, and their stay in solitary confinement is more likely to be longer.

When prisoners complain to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, here’s how the complaints breakdown by category.

Health care13.30%12.89%
Conditions of confinement11.27%10.84%
Cell effects5.56%7.47%
Administrative segregation3.98%3.75%
based on data in OCIAR, p. 134


The revocation rate for Indigenous offenders is significantly higher than for the overall population (39% vs. 32%).

OCIAR, p. 65

Indigenous offenders have a higher rate of return within two years post-warrant expiry compared to national rates (8.9% vs. 6.6%).

OCIAR, p. 65

A 2019 study looking at reconviction rates between 2007 and 2012 found that Indigenous people are more likely to be reconvicted than non-Indigenous people: men were 37.7% compared to 20.5% and women were 19.7% compared to 9.2%.


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. 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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