The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment that the state of a society is measured in the prisons it builds. If we look in Canadian prisons, one of the first things that we will notice is that Aboriginal peoples are disturbingly overrepresented. This has been the case for many years, and patterns of incarceration have not changed for the better. The most recent study on the issue, completed in 2007, concluded that Aboriginal peoples are over six times more likely to see the inside of a federal prison than the rest of Canadian society. This is a problem with deep roots in the Canadian history of settling the nation. The current situation stems directly from that history. I believe that while reconciliation can take place in any area of Canadian society, we can see the need for change most clearly when we look in prisons.
When we take a closer look at the Aboriginal interactions with the criminal justice system in Canada, it becomes painfully obvious that the law is not, nor has it ever been, racially or ideologically neutral. Instead, ideologies and prejudices of the time when the law was developed were codified within it. This was most obvious in the potlatch ban of the early twentieth century, but sentencing practices concerning laws that were not racially defined were rooted in non-Aboriginal worldviews and have since been proven to be discriminatory. It is therefore important to consider not only the application of the law in Canada, but also the origins of the system of law that we have.
One important point to remember is that the legal framework that Canada uses was developed over many centuries in Great Britain and therefore reflects European rather than Aboriginal worldviews. The entire penal system is built on a Eurocentric theoretical base that did not have precedent in Aboriginal societies. The penitentiary system was designed to instill a set of values grounded on a Christian theology of penitence. Since its first application, the penal system in Canada remained one that aimed to instill a set of values that were foreign to Aboriginal peoples.
Criminalizing Aboriginal cultures
Aboriginal peoples fell under the jurisdiction of the Canadian government through the Indian Act, a unilateral policy that declared Aboriginal peoples to be wards of the state. Some scholars have argued that the Indian Act and its subsequent revisions criminalized Aboriginal cultures, and in doing so made being an Aboriginal person in Canada a crime. Amendments to the Indian Act progressively tightened the control that governments had over the lives of Aboriginal peoples. Amendments to the Indian Act have made Aboriginal ceremonies criminally prosecutable offences, restricted movement and divided families. The criminal justice system never operated in isolation from the rest of Canadian colonialism, but rather was part of a much larger network that institutionalized Aboriginal peoples. Commentators have noted a direct link between Residential Schools as they operated in Canada and the way that the criminal justice system functions today. Within prisons, the limitations placed upon Aboriginal cultural expression were generally the most stringently applied and lasted for a much longer time.
Something that historians have begun to notice in the last 20 years or so is that even though Aboriginal peoples were faced with European incursions on their land and cultures, First Nations peoples always actively opposed imperialism; this was true in prisons as well. In the 1970s, a time when Aboriginal peoples were addressing long-term historical inequalities in new ways, a cultural movement emerged within prisons that confronted the problems they saw within the prison system, and indeed within Canadian colonial relationships in general, head on.
During the 1970s, several particularly active Aboriginal offenders began a movement that directly addressed the problems inherent within the way prisons operate in Canada. Correctional Services Canada identified a few Aboriginal men as problematic, and their method of preemptively putting out fires was to transfer those inmates whom they saw as the source of problems. Transferring these few men had the effect of spreading a cultural movement within prisons with which the correctional system was extremely uncomfortable. Thanks to the tireless efforts of many inmates and their surrounding communities, Aboriginal activists created an environment within many prisons where Aboriginal cultures were not ignored or disparaged, but instead were celebrated.
The initiatives that began at the grassroots level by Aboriginal inmates have had direct and meaningful implications on how prisons in Canada are run. Aboriginal Elders now operate at every major institution according to the needs of offenders. Many prisons hold regular Aboriginal events such as pow-wows and sharing circles. For many offenders, the first time they are taught Aboriginal cultural practices comes during their times in prison. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) was signed in 1992, and it made specific reference to the unique needs and circumstances of Aboriginal Canadians in federal corrections and in doing so it created a mandate for institutions to consider and plan for Aboriginal offenders. It further encouraged Aboriginal community involvement in the healing of offenders, and this has led to some very innovative and encouraging developments in the ways justice is served in Canada. In 1995 Correctional Services Canada opened its first Healing Lodge, which was a place where Aboriginal traditions were incorporated explicitly into the process of rehabilitating Aboriginal offenders.
Bill C-10: disadvantageous
Sadly, recent trends have slowed down or even reversed the progress that was so hard won in the past 40 years. On March 13, 2012, the Canadian government enacted Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was widely publicized as part of a new “tough on crime” strategy to combat certain types of crime. Unstated was the fact that this legislation further alienated already marginalized groups, including Aboriginal peoples. By creating more harsh sentencing practices, many community level programs that have developed in Aboriginal communities cannot operate to their potential as young Aboriginal men and women fall into patterns of criminality. Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer for British Columbia, has spoken out against the bill, arguing that the new legislation effectively dismantles two decades worth of accomplishments in the treatment of young Aboriginal offenders. Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has echoed these concerns.
In addition to Bill C-10, part-time chaplains have also been cut. Correctional Services Canada has opted for a “military-style” chaplaincy where clergy offer spiritual guidance to all inmates regardless of religion or creed. Towards this goal, the Canadian government eliminated nearly all non-Christian prison chaplains between September 2012 and March 2013. This was all in the name of reducing costs. This decision continues to have a devastating effect on the work done by Aboriginal Elders.
While there are problems facing Aboriginal peoples today, there can be hope for tomorrow. By recognizing and affirming Aboriginal peoples in all situations, Canada can become a place where reconciliation can take place. I hope that, in light of the history of Aboriginal-settler relationships, the importance of creating the space where reconciliation can take place is clear.
I have often pondered why Aboriginal experiences in prison is of such interest to me as a non-Aboriginal Canadian who has little direct experience with the criminal justice system. My previous articles in this series have focused on the importance of reconciliation, and if we are not able or willing to extend the hand of reconciliation to those who are the hardest hit by the legacy of Residential Schools and generations of colonialism, then our attempts towards reconciliation are empty at best. As Christians, we hold a responsibility to work towards the realization of God’s kingdom while we are on earth. We could do worse than to begin this work in prisons.
Seth Adema is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Wilfred Laurier University.
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