Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

‘A national travesty:’ Prison watchdog urges reform to tackle Indigenous over-incarceration

November 2, 2023

Correctional investigator calls for transfer of power back to Indigenous people as special probe concludes

A man in a suit and tie speaks from a table.
Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger delivers remarks at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

CBC Indigenous: Canada’s prison watchdog is denouncing the over-representation of Indigenous people in federal prisons as a travesty while urging significant reform, as he releases the second part of a two-year investigation.

In the conclusion of his Ten Years Since Spirit Matters report, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger calls for the devolution of correctional power to Indigenous people to address worsening rates of over-representation.

“The steady and unabated increase in the disproportionate representation of Indigenous peoples under federal sentence is nothing short of a national travesty and remains one of Canada’s most pressing human rights challenges,” Zinger wrote.

His latest findings were released Wednesday with the office’s 50th annual report, which says the over-representation of  Indigenous people in federal prisons has been an area of steady concern since the correctional investigator’s office was created.

It’s a crisis Zinger has sounded the alarm over with stronger language every year.

“I am deeply frustrated and disappointed each time I report on reaching or surpassing yet another sad milestone,” he wrote in this year’s annual message, dated June 2023 but tabled in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“Canada’s federal correctional system needs to get on board and begin to divest itself of the authorities, controls and resources that have kept Indigenous people over-incarcerated for far too long.”

CBC News contacted Correctional Service Canada (CSC) for comment but has not received a response by time of publishing.

Zinger joined Indigenous leaders at a news conference Thursday morning in Ottawa where he announced “the evidence that Canada’s correctional system is failing Indigenous people could not be any clearer.”

The original Spirit Matters report was tabled in Parliament 10 years ago. When it was released, Indigenous people made up 25 per cent of federal inmates. Today, it’s 32 per cent, with things still not improving, Zinger found.

The national Indigenous leaders who joined the investigator on Thursday called the findings disturbing, unacceptable and startling but not surprising.

“It is disheartening, deeply, deeply concerning to see that 10 years after the Spirit Matters report was released the situation has only gotten worse,” said Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec-Labrador. “We can’t afford to come back 10 years from now to hear the crisis situation has only gotten worse — again.”

Three people speaking to reporters.
Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard delivers remarks at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, as Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed look on. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said the report confirms what the Métis Nation has long known: “that the colonial correctional system does not work for us.”

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told reporters Inuit communities need “upstream” solutions to keep people out of prison. “This over-incarceration has a direct link to basic lack of necessities and needs being met in our communities, specifically in health, education and wellness,” he said.

“We can’t address justice effectively without tackling systemic racism.”

Correctional Service panned

The correctional investigator’s team conducted 223 interviews with Indigenous prisoners, elders and spiritual advisors, CSC staff, and executive directors of healing lodges and community-based residential facilities at 30 penitentiaries and 81 healing lodges countrywide. 

A snow-covered sweat lodge is seen penned in by a barbed wire prison fence.
The sweat lodge for the maximum security unit at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba. (Correctional Investigator Annual Report 2022-2023)

“The plight of Indigenous peoples behind bars has become steadily and progressively worse,” Zinger wrote. “Indeed, Canada’s correctional population is becoming disturbingly and unconscionably Indigenized.”

Zinger concluded penitentiaries are “historically and inherently colonial institutions,” limiting the progress that can be made in the system as it now exists. 

He found “organizational paternalism” and “incapacity for self-reflection” in the correctional system, and expressed worry CSC is “playing a game of recognition politics, where it has learned to talk the talk of reconciliation to increase its resource base, quell the concerns of detractors and advocates, and stall for yet more time.”

A wooden "pathways" sign hangs above a blue steel prison door.
Entrance to the Pathways administrative building at Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Pathways is a program designed for offenders who demonstrate a commitment to follow traditional healing as a way of life.(Correctional Investigator Annual Report 2022-2023)

He also noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 findings on this topic remain relevant, but mostly unfulfilled.

Key takeaways

The special report is structured into three parts, with each corresponding to an area under investigation: healing lodges, the Pathways program, and the role and impact of elders.

From these, the investigator distilled five key findings, all of them critical:

  1. CSC is failing to make changes to address, mitigate and reduce the chronic over-representation of Indigenous people behind bars.
  2. State-run healing lodges are funded, resourced and occupied at significantly higher levels than their “grossly under-resourced” community-run counterparts.
  3. The contributions of elders are undervalued, under-reported and under-supported by CSC.
  4. Signature interventions like the Pathways initiatives or healing lodge programs have no meaningful impact on over-representation because they serve too few people.
  5. CSC’s pan-Indigenous approach to Indigenous corrections erases significant historical and cultural differences between and among First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

The three Indigenous leaders broadly agreed with the findings, and expressed particular concern about potential discrimination against elders, who are supposed to be on the same level as prison chaplains.

Zinger has offered a list of recommendations to implement his call for reform, telling reporters many were deliberately directed at the minister of public safety, who can compel the CSC to act on them.

“The response of the service over the years has been dismissive and unresponsive,” Zinger said, addng that he is supposed to notify the minister if he’s unhappy with the agency’s response.

CBC News contacted a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc but has not received a response by time of publishing.

The first part of the investigation was released last year; he has released the full two-part version online, calling it a roadmap for reform


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.