ARCHIVED - Backgrounder: Aboriginal Inmates

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The Numbers Reveal a Critical Situation

  • Established in 1991, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) concluded that "the justice system has failed Aboriginal people," the key indicator of which was their steadily increasing and disproportionate representation in Canadian correctional facilities.
  • While Aboriginal peoples comprise 2.7 percent of the adult Canadian population, approximately 18.5 percent of offenders now serving federal sentences are of First Nations, Métis and Inuit ancestry (Correctional Service Canada, 2006.) Approximately 68 percent of federal Aboriginal offenders are First Nations, 28 percent are Métis and 4 percent Inuit.
  • This overrepresentation is particularly acute in the West, but it exists across Canada. In the Prairies, where Aboriginal peoples comprise a larger proportion of the general population, they account for a staggering 60 percent of offenders.
  • Aboriginal women are even more overrepresented than Aboriginal men in the criminal justice system, representing 30 percent of women in federal prisons.
  • While the federally incarcerated population in Canada declined by 12.5 percent from 1996 to 2004, the number of First Nations people in federal institutions increased by 21.7 percent. The number of incarcerated First Nations women also increased - by 74.2 percent over the same period.
  • Aboriginal youth are also overrepresented among criminalized young people. Research shows that Aboriginal young people are criminalized and jailed at earlier ages and for longer periods of time than non-Aboriginal young people.
  • In 2000, 41.3 percent of all federally incarcerated Aboriginal offenders were 25 years of age or younger. First Nations youth are the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, and it is expected that this will have a significant impact on the criminal justice system.
  • Should the current trend continue unchecked, the Aboriginal population in Canada's correctional institutions could reach the 25 percent mark in less than 10 years.

Factors Impacting the Overrepresentation of Aboriginal People in Prisons

  • The higher rate of incarceration for Aboriginal peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social deprivation, substance abuse and a cycle of violence across generations.
  • As a group, Aboriginal offenders tend to be younger, are more likely to be incarcerated for a violent offence, have much higher needs (relating to employment and education, for example) and have had more extensive involvement with the criminal justice system as youths.
  • An extremely high percentage of Aboriginal offenders report early drug and/or alcohol use (80 percent), physical abuse (45 percent), parental absence or neglect (41 percent) and poverty (35 percent) in their family backgrounds. Twenty-eight percent of Aboriginal offenders had been raised as wards of the community, and 15 percent had been sent to residential schools. Aboriginal offenders also suffer from a higher incidence of health problems.

The Outcome Gaps for Aboriginal Inmates

  • The Correctional Service relies on risk assessment tools that have been repeatedly found to overclassify Aboriginal offenders unjustifiably. Aboriginal offenders are initially placed in higher levels of security and are placed in minimum-security institutions at only half the rate of non-Aboriginal offenders.1
  • Like their male counterparts, Aboriginal women are overrepresented in the maximum-security prison population, making up 46 percent of federally sentenced women in the maximum-security population, 35 percent in the medium-security population and 23 percent in the minimum-security population in 2003.
  • Placement in maximum security and segregation reduces access to programming intended to prepare inmates for eventual release and to increase their chances for successful reintegration into their communities.
  • Aboriginal offenders are admitted to segregation more often than non-Aboriginal offenders.
  • The proportion of full parole applications resulting in reviews by the National Parole Board is lower for Aboriginal offenders, due in part to high full parole waiver rates.
  • The grant rates at full parole for Aboriginal offenders fall below the rates for non-Aboriginal offenders. Aboriginal offenders are released and supervised on statutory release at a significantly higher rate.
  • Longer periods of incarceration and more statutory releases for Aboriginal offenders have contributed to less time in the community for programming/intervention than for non-Aboriginal offenders. There has been an increase in the number and percentage of Aboriginal offenders suspended/temporarily detained over the past few years.
  • The proportion of Aboriginal offenders under community supervision (31 percent) is significantly smaller than the proportion of non-Aboriginal offenders (41 percent) serving their sentences on conditional release in the community.
  • Parole is more likely to be revoked for Aboriginal offenders than non-Aboriginal offenders. The rate of revocation for breach of parole conditions (i.e., no new criminal offence) is higher for Aboriginal offenders.
  • Aboriginal offenders are re-admitted to federal custody (two-year post-warrant expiry date) more frequently than non-Aboriginal offenders, with a higher percentage of re-admissions for a Schedule I (violent) offence.
  • Aboriginal offenders continue to be overrepresented as a proportion of offenders referred for detention and detained compared to the other offender groups. In 2004-2005, Aboriginal offenders accounted for 30.4 percent of all offenders referred for detention and 30.7 percent of offenders detained, although they represent 18.5 percent of the federally incarcerated population serving determinate sentences.
  • Correctional Service's own statistics regarding correctional outcomes for offenders confirm that, despite years of task force reports, internal reviews, national strategies, partnership agreements and action plans, there has been no significant progress in improving the overall situation of Aboriginal offenders during the last 20 years.

Recommendations for Action

  • There are significant challenges in bridging the gap between traditional correctional approaches, and Aboriginal methods of justice and reconciliation. The ongoing support and involvement of elders, Aboriginal liaison officers, community representatives and Aboriginal organizations is viewed as key to closing the outcome gaps for First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders.
  • Advocates for Aboriginal inmates have long stressed that Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organizations must be directly involved in developing and providing appropriate programs, and actively involved in the evaluation of current assessment tools used by CSC.
  • In his 2005-2006 Annual Report, the Correctional Investigator recommended that, in the next year, the Correctional Service:

- implement a security classification process that ends the overclassification of Aboriginal offenders;

- increase timely access to programs and services that will significantly reduce time spent in medium- and maximum-security institutions;

- significantly increase the number of Aboriginal offenders housed at minimum-security institutions;

- significantly increase the use of unescorted temporary absences and work releases;

- significantly increase the number of Aboriginal offenders appearing before the National Parole Board at their earliest eligibility dates;

- build capacity for and increase the use of section 84 and section 81 agreements with Aboriginal communities2; and,

- significantly improve (above the required employment equity level) the overall rate of its Aboriginal workforce at all levels in institutions where a majority of offenders are of Aboriginal ancestry.


1 Arbour Report (1996); Auditor General of Canada (2003); Canadian Human Rights Commission (2003); Cheryl Webster and Tony Doob (2004); Corrections Research Branch of the Department of Public Safety (2004).

2 Sections 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act provide for the direct involvement of Aboriginal communities in supporting timely conditional release.