Debates of the Senate  
3rd Session, 40th Parliament,Volume 147, Issue 81
  Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011
Aboriginal Women in Prisons

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The state of Aboriginal women in Canada's prisons is very troubling. It is appalling. Aboriginal women are significantly overrepresented in Canada's prisons and they now account for one third of all federally incarcerated women. This number has increased by 91 per cent since 2001. Additionally, about 80 per cent of female Aboriginal inmates are held in maximum- to medium-security prisons, while only about 20 per cent are in minimum-security prisons. In my home province of Saskatchewan, which has one of the largest provincial Aboriginal populations in Canada, Aboriginal women make up 87 per cent of the female inmate population. In neighbouring Manitoba, the number is 83 per cent.

To compound the problem, about 30 per cent of incarcerated Aboriginal women are said to have mental health problems at the time of imprisonment and cannot access treatment programs. Of the Aboriginal women who are incarcerated, 90 per cent have been victims of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse. Experts agree that the proposed crime legislation from this government will significantly increase these numbers. More Aboriginal women will be incarcerated.

Aboriginal women are at a higher risk of reoffending because culturally appropriate programs and services that are mandated by Correctional Service Canada are not made available to most Aboriginal women.

We cannot sit by and watch an already vulnerable population continue in a cycle of offending and reoffending without the necessary help in Aboriginal communities to reintegrate them and in prisons nationwide to rehabilitate them.

Could the Leader of the Government in the Senate explain why the government continues to ignore the underlying issues of poverty, abuse, violence, homelessness and drug abuse in Aboriginal communities that perpetuate a cycle of offenders, and why the programs that are specifically for Aboriginal women have not been made more widely available?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I thank the honourable senator for the question. This is, of course, a serious concern to all people in government and society. The number of Aboriginal women in our prison system, of course, is high. It is a very disturbing figure.

I must report to honourable senators that it is not only through Correctional Service Canada and the Minister of Public Safety, but also through the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and Status of Women Canada, that a significant number of programs are in place. We are working with the Native Women's Association and a number of other organizations to get out into the Aboriginal communities and offer all the assistance possible to the various groups directly affected by the many factors the honourable senator pointed out.

With regard to Aboriginal women with mental health issues in prisons, as I mentioned yesterday when I was asked a similar question about mental health and the treatment of same, we are continuing to take significant action on the entire issue of mental health. We have invested more than $50 million in funding to Correctional Service Canada over the past five years. Correctional Service Canada has increased access to services for inmates and invested significantly in the training and retraining of staff so that they can better recognize and treat mental health issues.

I must point out, honourable senators, that the resources we have provided to deal with this serious issue have only been provided by our government; they were not in place under any previous government.

Senator Dyck: In Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, near the Nekaneet First Nation reserve, the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge provides culturally appropriate programs for female Aboriginal offenders. This type of rehabilitation has been successful; however, this is the only Aboriginal women's healing centre run through Correctional Service Canada.

Does the government have plans to open more of these types of centres given the effectiveness of such a program to reduce reoffending, which of course will keep Canadian and Aboriginal communities safer?

Senator LeBreton: That is a good question. The government is always interested in having programs that prove to be successful, such as the one that Senator Dyck just mentioned.

Through Status of Women Canada and also the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, there are many programs. Specifically with regard to women, Correctional Service Canada, as I mentioned a moment ago, has programs in place. However, I would be happy, honourable senators, to ask my colleagues, the Honourable Vic Toews and the Honourable Rona Ambrose, whether or not this very successful project is being looked at with the possible conclusion of having other similar programs.

Senator Dyck: According to the material from Correctional Service Canada, there are plans under way to develop culturally appropriate interventions that address the specific needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit men and women.

In particular, would the Leader of the Government in the Senate provide this chamber with an update on what the government has done to, first, develop and implement culturally sensitive classification and assessment tools for women; second, develop and implement culturally sensitive programs for Aboriginal women; third, develop and implement targeted interventions for Aboriginal women; and, fourth, enhance the knowledge of Aboriginal women and effective corrections for that specific population? Could we get an update on what the government has done, what programs they have funded and where they are?

Senator LeBreton: Absolutely, honourable senators, I would be happy to ask for updated information on the questions posed by Senator Dyck.

Hon. Sharon Carstairs: Honourable senators, while the Honourable Leader of the Government in the Senate is gathering that information, would she also gather the information as to how many incarcerated Aboriginal women received culturally sensitive programs in the fiscal year 2010-11?

Senator LeBreton: I certainly will, honourable senators. I can say one thing, that the figure will be higher than that of the previous government.

Senator Cowan: That is very helpful.