Natives hugely over-represented in prisons

Posted by admin on Jan 22nd, 2011

By JILLIAN AUSTIN, QMI Agency, January 22, 2011

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WINNIPEG – Whenever a cell door clanks shut in Manitoba, the person inside is usually an aboriginal. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, aboriginal convicts made up a whopping 71% of all admissions to provincial institutions. And while the statistics are particularly grim in Manitoba, they point to a larger national trend.

From 1998 to 2008, the aboriginal population in federal prisons increased by nearly 20%, according to a Public Safety Canada report.

Eric Robinson, Manitoba’s minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, says the numbers are troubling.

“I’d like to say that some improvements have been made with respect to the number of aboriginal people doing time, but that’s not the case obviously,” he said.

In the entire province, aboriginal people make up just 12% of the adult population. So why is there such an overrepresentation in the jails?

Robinson said the root cause goes back generations.

“It’s hard to overcome generations of oppression towards aboriginal people,” he said. “As a result, many aboriginal people fall between the cracks and then wind up doing time.”

The residential school era took away the students’ cultural identity, which has been passed on through generations, he said.

“We have not been able as aboriginal people to generate enough to end that cycle that appears to be there,” he said. “What has happened has been … this loss of identity of aboriginal people and that’s what has contributed to the social discourse of aboriginal people for the most part in the province of Manitoba.”

Jennifer Wood, residential school compensation co-ordinator with the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, says Canada’s history with aboriginal people continues to affect the population.

“I’ve always believed that the direct link to many of our problems is … these are children of residential school survivors,” she said. “When you come out, you don’t have the parenting skills, you don’t have the emotional comfort that a child should have, you don’t have the ability to teach them certain things.”

Many families live in poverty on reserves, and when people make the move to the city, that poverty continues, she said.

“Once you come in to the city, you are a target because you are a vulnerable person,” she said. “You don’t have the street smarts. Vulnerability is a breeding ground for people wanting to recruit young people into the drug scene.”

Poverty is often linked to criminal activity, and Wayne Helgason, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg says it is the “single most determining factor” for whether or not one chooses a life of crime.

“Our last report card clearly showed that 68% of children under the age of six who are aboriginal live in poverty,” he said.

When educational and other opportunities are missed, there is a general disassociation with society and its norms and values, he said.

“It gives you permission in your own way, to take what you can, while you can for immediate basic needs,” he said. “So it’s a predictable situation. If we have poverty and exclusion, we will have increasing rates of crime.”

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