Alberta has ‘failed at every step’ as Indigenous incarceration ratios soar: NDP

By Catherine Griwkowsky July 18, 2023

Justice Minister Mickey Amery (Government of Alberta)

Indigenous people are increasingly overrepresented in provincial correctional facilities, and Alberta has the second-highest rate of provincially incarcerated Indigenous people incarcerated in the country, behind only Saskatchewan.

That’s according to a new over-representation index from Statistics Canada.

Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action is one for government to eliminate overrepresentation by 2025. But rates worsened year over year from 2019-20 to 2020-21 in provincial facilities, with Indigenous people in Alberta 10.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people.

Provincial correctional facilities include remand centres for those in pre-trial custody and people serving sentences of less than two years. The data includes those serving community sentences, such as house arrest, in the number of people incarcerated.

While overall incarceration rates decreased since 2019, the decrease was less for Indigenous people in prisons in 2020-21, meaning the rates of overrepresentation increased.

Justice Minister Mickey Amery said the government has a number of initiatives aimed at addressing over-incarceration at multiple stages in the justice system.

That includes the Indigenous Justice Strategy, which is being developed with the Alberta Court of Justice with the aim of implementing a culturally relevant, restorative and a holistic system of justice for Indigenous people.

Amery said healing plans are now part of release applications or sentencing decisions.

“As well, Gladue reports are a way for the court to consider the unique circumstances of Indigenous peoples, racism, loss of language, Indian residential schools, foster care and addiction,” Amery said. “Justices consider the impacts of these factors when they make decisions relating to an Indigenous person appearing in their court.”

NDP Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation critic Brooks Arcand-Paul, MLA for Edmonton—West Henday, said Indigenous people are the most studied people on Earth and the answer is action.

“I’m tired of hearing these reports and I’m tired because it’s the exact same dark picture every single time,” he said. “Despite the efforts of federal governments to alleviate these numbers, the provinces have really just failed at every step.”

The overall incarceration rate decreased by 18 per cent year over year, partially due to temporary or early release for those deemed low-risk to reoffend, largely due to Covid measures. But non-Indigenous people were given early or temporary release at higher rates of 27 per cent, meaning the overrepresentation of Indigenous people increased by 14 per cent.

Indigenous men, ages 25 to 34 years old, are the demographic most likely to be in custody for at least one day. The Statistics Canada Custodial Involvement Rate — which does not control for population difference or amount of time in custody — for provinces that participated estimates 8.4 per cent of young Indigenous men had spent at least one day in custody, compared to 1.1 per cent of young non-Indigenous men.

Indigenous women are 15.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous women.

NDP Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation critic Brooks Arcand-Paul (Alberta NDP)

Continuation of colonial systems

Arcand-Paul said higher rates of incarceration on the Prairies are a continuation of the traditional police role of quelling dissent.

“On one side you have my folks, my people that don’t trust the government, that don’t trust our laws because the system doesn’t work for us,” he said. “Now, on the other hand, you have the government or police that are intent on locking us up.”

He added a lack of trust in government continues as decisions are made without the inclusion of Indigenous people — colonial systems that don’t uphold the responsibility to community and importance of relationships.

The Statistics Canada report links the overrepresentation in the justice system to colonialism, displacement, socio-economic and cultural marginalization and systemic discrimination.

Arcand-Paul wants to see more disaggregated data, including whether people live in urban areas or if they were arrested in First Nations or Metis communities, whether those incarcerated are members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and information on socio–economic factors and housing status.

Indigenous people less likely to get bail

The Statistics Canada report also showed two-thirds of those in provincial custody are  remanded while awaiting a decision or process by the courts. Indigenous people are less likely to get bail based on average daily counts (ADC) — a ratio of those in custody compared to those out on bail. Indigenous people had a ratio of 2.6 people out on bail for every person in remand. For non-Indigenous people, there were 4.9 people on bail for every one in remand.

Before the pandemic, the ADC was stable, but in an attempt to reduce overcrowding, courts released more people on bail as Covid hit. Non-Indigenous people saw an ADC ratio increase of 60 per cent, but for Indigenous people that rate rose more slowly, by 53 per cent from March 2020 to June 2020. The ratios were nearly identical to March 2020 levels by March 2021.

“What I see when I read this report is our poverty being highlighted,” Arcand-Paul said, adding people need access to competent legal counsel through Legal Aid and funds to access bail.

Amery said bail decision are made independent of government and rules are set out in federal legislation.

He said there have been positive steps, such as mandatory cultural training for lawyers, which was brought in under former chief justice Derek Redman. But that initiative was met with pushback from some lawyers who did not believe they should be subject to cultural competency requirements.