By Reuel Amdur
What will the Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act mean for Aboriginals? In short, it will mean more Aboriginals in custody for longer. The rate of Aboriginal incarceration is high and going up. This bill will increase the number even more.
Statistics Canada indicates approximately 3% of the population is Aboriginal, and the custody statistics are alarming. From 2008-2009, Aboriginal people accounted for 27% of admissions to provincial and territorial custody, as well as 18% in federal custody and 21% to remand. Of all women in custody, 37% are Aboriginal, as are 28% of women in remand. In comparison, 20% of remanded men and 25% of men sentenced to custody are Aboriginal. The bottom line is that the prisons are more and more populated by Aboriginals, and the numbers continue to rise.
The proposed legislation will set new minimum sentences for a range of offenses, and more Aboriginals will remain in prison for a longer period of time. Yet, the bill will not make us safer. According to Irvin Waller, a leading Canadian criminologist and professor at the University of Ottawa, “The bill will not do much to reduce violent crimes such as sexual and other assaults, break-and-enters, and car thefts.” More effective, he said, are preventive measures. A preventive approach aims at outreach to young people in high crime neighborhoods. The rapid influx of Native people into urban areas makes them good candidates for the kind of crime prevention strategies that have already shown their worth in places like Chicago and in Britain. A good preventive program includes youth outreach workers and reduced access to alcohol, guns, and knives.
When it comes to sentencing, the bill severely limits community alternatives, such as the use of healing (or sentencing) circles, a traditional way of dealing with criminality in some Aboriginal cultures. A healing circle is a shaming procedure that involves representatives of the community listening to the offender and often the victim and determining an appropriate resolution, whether it’s a conditional sentence, restitution, or jail time. Healing circles are only used when a person admits guilt. On the basis of his experience with the RCMP in the North, Ottawa Police Chief Vern White is a great believer in the efficacy of healing circles. Prisons can be training grounds for criminal careers, and longer sentences can mean returning prisoners are even more dangerous to the community. We should only rely on incarceration when absolutely necessary.
Waller also spoke of Aboriginals as victims of crime. He noted that 25% of victims of Aboriginal violence are women. Some southwestern Ontario schools have implemented a program aimed at preventing sexual violence against women, known as the Fourth R. The program is aimed at teens because most sexual assaults, according to Waller, are committed by teens and young men in their early twenties.
On reserves, more general preventive measures demand broad improvements in education and child welfare services. Currently, funding for such programs falls below funding given for youth programs in communities outside reserves. In prison, mental health programs are grossly neglected, and it is doubtful if the Tories will be dealing adequately with this issue any time soon. Aboriginals, along with other prisoners, are ill served by this neglect.