When Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada in 2015, there was considerable hope that there was a partner in Ottawa whom Indigenous peoples could work with to deliver meaningful change. Within months of taking office, he endorsed the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He also launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and expressed support for its calls for justice. Trudeau used the term genocide to describe the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada and committed the federal government to the path toward reconciliation. Following the Supreme Court’s Daniels ruling in 2016, he also committed to working with off-reserve Indigenous people who had previously been denied the title and rights afforded to those living on reserve.

The path forward to which the prime minister committed includes concrete steps to end the systemic discrimination that Indigenous people face when encountering Canadian state institutions and to pave the way for Indigenous self-determination. Expanding the use of alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice in the wake of social harm, and expanding the resources available for these alternatives, was proposed by both the TRC and the MMIWG Inquiry. These measures are integral to meeting the prime minister’s commitments, but these commitments are among the many made by the federal government that continue to be betrayed in 2020.

The year began with Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger sounding the alarm that the efforts of the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to “Indigenize” its federal penitentiaries had failed. He underscored that while the number of non-Indigenous federal prisoners decreased by 14 percent over the past decade, the number of Indigenous federal prisoners increased by 43 percent during this period. While Indigenous people account for 5 percent of the people living across the country, they now make up more than 30 percent of federal prisoners. Under a “feminist” administration in Ottawa, Indigenous women remain the fastest-growing prison population in Canada.

The mass incarceration of Indigenous people has deepened during an era of “reconciliation,” a time when their imprisonment is recognized as a consequence of the intergenerational trauma they have endured. The trauma stems from the theft of Indigenous lands; the attempted destruction of Indigenous languages through Indian Residential Schools and Indian Day Schools; the historical criminalization of Indigenous spirituality; the severing of cultural and familial bonds through the Sixties Scoop and the kidnapping of children under the guise of child welfare; and a host of other colonial policies and practices that have ravaged traditional Indigenous lands that settlers call Canada.

The mass incarceration of Indigenous people has deepened during an era of “reconciliation,” a time when their imprisonment is recognized as a consequence of the intergenerational trauma they have endured.

This colonial-made crisis continues during the pandemic. In the months since physical distancing and a series of emergency measures were enacted from coast to coast to coast, the federal government has further distanced itself from its commitments to address the pandemic of Indigenous mass incarceration that plagues this country and fuels more violence instead of preventing it. Indigenous leaders from organizations like the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous scholars like Pamela Palmater and allies like Senator Kim Pate have all urged the federal government to take action to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind and beyond the walls of its penitentiaries. They have called upon Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to depopulate federal prisons to the degree that is possible and to provide the necessary resources to safely house and support Indigenous people returning to their communities.

It is deeply troubling that these calls – rooted in Indigenous self-determination and the knowledge that imprisonment is a contemporary manifestation of colonialism – have not resulted in meaningful releases of Indigenous prisoners. Not even most of the prisoners whom the Canadian carceral state deems to be low-risk or non-violent have been released from CSC institutions, nor have most of the human beings living with serious chronic health conditions that put them at great risk of death if they contract COVID-19.

Instead, in the name of public health and safety, federal prisoners – including Indigenous people as well as Black people mass incarcerated among them – are frequently subject to lockdowns. Under the guise of medical isolation, symptomatic and ill prisoners face weeks of segregation – a practice supposedly “abolished” during the last Parliament. Many prisoners have been cut off from their community supports, including Indigenous elders, while communication with their families has been sparse.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

How any of this contributes to making communities safer in the short or long term when most current federal prisoners will re-enter society having endured this state violence and neglect is a mystery. Where public health is concerned, the results speak for themselves: by the end of May, 360 federal prisoners and more than 120 CSC employees had contracted COVID-19. As of mid-June, two federal prisoners have died from the coronavirus that we know of.

The federal government’s failure to act is but another instance of white settler paternalism and of commitments to reconciliation being cast aside. Continuing to expose Indigenous peoples to a heightened risk of disease and death behind prison walls in the face of Indigenous demands to release them amounts to political imprisonment and a sign that genocidal federal government policies persist today.

If reconciliation and ending racism are what Trudeau is after, he needs to safely depopulate federal penitentiaries to the extent currently possible and defund the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which continues to play an integral role in colonialism.

However, it is not just colonial prisons that kill. The deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who was living in Toronto, and Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman who was living in Edmundston, are just two of the many recent examples of human beings losing their lives during interactions with the police. Perhaps most shockingly, their deaths took place during “mental health checks.” People of conscience are rising up against racism directed at Black and other racialized human beings, including Indigenous people such as Rodney Levi, who, like Chantel Moore, also lost his life to RCMP gunfire in New Brunswick, just days ago. They are condemning the violence of policing. The idea of defunding the police is gathering momentum. For his part, the Prime Minister has stated his commitment to ending racism, but what will this mean in practice?

If reconciliation and ending racism are what Trudeau is after, he needs to safely depopulate federal penitentiaries to the extent currently possible and defund the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which continues to play an integral role in colonialism. With municipalities and provinces requesting federal assistance to backstop their funding shortfalls, the prime minister needs to leverage his position. He must attach federal dollars to specific local efforts. Replacing municipal and provincial policing with transformative approaches to address social issues and reallocating police budgets toward additional investments in people, such as housing, are just some of the measures that need to be implemented to actually enhance community well-being and safety.

Issuing more apologies for the atrocities of the past and attending or endorsing anti-racism protests for the shortcomings of the present without enacting meaningful change will not cut it. Prime Minister Trudeau needs to meet the moment and put this country on a path toward transformative justice now.

Photo: The Matsqui Institution, a medium-security federal men’s prison, is seen in Abbotsford, BC, on October 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Kim Beaudin
Kim Beaudin is a Status Indian from Michel Indian Reserve 132 in Treaty 6, a descendant of the Red River Métis. He is national vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
Justin Piché
Justin Piché, PhD is associate professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. He is part of the Prison Pandemic Partnership, which is studying the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian sites of confinement.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License