Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator, says outcomes for indigenous inmates — who represent 24 per cent of the prison population — continue to be far worse than for other offenders.
Sapers says issues facing aboriginal inmates, including more time spent in custody and segregation cells, are urgent enough that they require stand-alone leadership within the Correctional Service of Canada.
"On just about every measure we look at, there are huge gaps and we believe it's time that somebody was accountable to address those gaps," Sapers said. "We think that leadership needs to be put in place."
He also said the government should address aboriginal-specific provisions in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act designed to enhance community involvement in corrections and address the over-representation of aboriginals behind bars.
"We reported that the will of Parliament has not been fully reflected in how the Correctional Service of Canada has conducted itself over the last 20 years," he said. "In fact, not enough attention has been paid to implementing those sections."
The watchdog says, for example, there are no healing lodges operated by aboriginal communities in the North or in Ontario and British Columbia, where there are high concentrations of offenders.
Among the 94 recommendations in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a call for the creation of additional healing lodge spaces across the country.
"We know that the platform of the Liberal party prior to the election included a full and robust response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," he said. "That's something we will be looking for."
Sapers noted his findings were not addressed by action from the former Conservative government.
He recalled that his office released a 2013 report examining whether the correctional service was doing everything it should be doing, according to the law, to deal with ballooning rates of aboriginal incarceration.
"It was tabled as a special report in Parliament, one of only two special reports my office has ever issued in its more than 40-year history," Sapers said. "That, itself, is a signal that this was a very urgent and important matter.
"It was tabled in Parliament by the minister of public safety as a special report calling for urgent action and really, it received anything but."
The report noted that close to one-in-four inmates in federal penitentiaries were of aboriginal ancestry, yet specific legislative provisions were chronically under-funded, under-utilized and unevenly applied by the correctional service.
Sapers said the government's overall response was business as usual, which was very disappointing and not at all responsive to the recommendations.
The watchdog said he is hopeful other recommendations issued by his office on aboriginal incarceration, including calls for culturally appropriate programming and staff training, will be addressed as a complete package by the new government.
Sapers said one of the difficulties has been a "lack of a coherent response."
"We don't need any more piecemeal reform," Sapers said. "We need to re-introduce some coherence into the system."
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