Little justice available for jailed Indigenous population

Canada's prison population is at an all-time high, and Aboriginal people make up a disproportionate number of people in jail. Former inmates spoke of discrimination against Indigenous peoples and the unresolved legacy of residential schools and colonization. 

“I was homeless, and I needed money for dope, so I forced myself into a person's house," said Ailen Sigo, speaking of the break-in that landed her in jail when she was a teenager. 

Sitting in a chair at the halfway house, Sigo rocked her body side to side as she reminisced. She is a thin Aboriginal woman in her mid-forties, with sunken cheeks and emaciated fingers. Her body tells the story of years of suffering with heavy drug use and going for days on end without food.

"I was found guilty on a technical basis, and given a choice to either go to the psych ward or the overnight holding cell."

She chose, at the time, the overnight holding cell.

"I did not want to be detained at the psych ward for any amount of time," she said. "I voluntarily admitted (to my crime) so that I could avoid any kind of police brutality that happens a lot with Native people.” 

Aboriginal people make up only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population. Yet they form nearly a quarter of population in prison. According to a report released by the Canadian correctional system on March 7, 2013, the First Nation prison population in Canada has risen to 23 per cent, up from 14 per cent 10 years ago.

Aboriginal levels of incarceration in Canadian prisons have never been higher. In fact, nation-wide rates of imprisonment are worse per capita for the native population than black Africans during apartheid South Africa. 

The stories of First Nations in Vancouver who have been incarcerated reveal the legacy of racism and colonization that continues to reverberate today. 

"The suppression of Aboriginal culture was a significant factor in causing me to feel marginalized from an early age," said Darryl Begay, a 60-year-old Aboriginal man who received a life sentence for second-degree murder.

"I was never able to fit in, not being able to finish high school, and living a life of crime on the streets and getting involved in drugs," he said.

At the young age of 16, Begay went to jail for the first time, and got life sentence for committing second-degree murder. Now 60, Begay is disabled, sickly and weak from the cancer he contracted while in prison.

“I went to jail because I committed a crime for drugs," said recovering drug addict Donna Pratt.  "I went for counselling for many years, but I still ended up committing a crime because no one wanted to hear me.”

Apologies toward First Nations not backed up by funding           

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the step of apologizing to Canada's First Nations for this country's role in the Indian residential school system, which is believed to have played a major role in the high rate of aboriginal incarceration.

"His apology at the time looked genuine, but the results are yet to be seen,” said Aiyana White, manager at the halfway house.

Aiyana observers that in the six years after Harper's apology, little efforts have been made to bring justice to First Nations. What has happened instead is the justice system increasingly filling up with Aboriginal inmates. 

According to Mike Larsen, co-managing editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal women in particular are not only over-represented, but are also the fastest growing population sentenced to federal prisons. Among women offenders, the over-representation is even more drastic -- one in three women that receive federal sentencing are of aboriginal descent, according to Statistics Canada.

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