05/02/2016 09:51 EDT | Updated 05/03/2017 05:12 EDT

Aboriginal Women Inquiry Must Examine Police Culture: Advocate

Advocates said aboriginal women tend to be "underprotected and overpoliced."

OTTAWA — Aboriginal women tend to be "underprotected and overpoliced," making it vital that the behaviour of police be examined in the upcoming inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women, advocates said Monday.

Indigenous women are grossly overrepresented in the prison system and commonly suffer from poverty and abuse, said Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Those who end up behind bars often share similar, vulnerable backgrounds with those who are murdered or go missing, she added.

"They are women who are often already marginalized by virtue of their race, class, and sometimes disability if they have disabling mental health issues or intellectual disabilities," Pate said.

"We know that the rates of violence ... against indigenous women are particularly high, and they are also more likely to not have had support in addressing that violence."

Pate said she hopes the inquiry will untangle the issues that make indigenous women vulnerable to becoming victims, as well as the those that might make them more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

"We know that the rates of violence ... against indigenous women are particularly high, and they are also more likely to not have had support in addressing that violence."

"If we end up with recommendations for better supports for women and not abandoning them to the streets or to prison, then we will end up seeing fewer people in all of those situations in my opinion."

Deep, systemic problems facing aboriginal women in prison were recently flagged in the year-end report from Canada's prison watchdog.

Howard Sapers found Canada's aboriginal inmate population ballooned by more than 50 per cent between 2005 and 2015. He called the situation even more distressing for federally sentenced aboriginal women.

The number of indigenous women behind bars has doubled over the last 10 years, he added, making it the fastest growing offender category under federal jurisdiction.

Aboriginal female inmates are also more likely to be serving a sentence for a drug-related offence, more likely to be classified as maximum security and more likely to be considered high-risk, Sapers said.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada, speaks to reporters during a symposium on the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, Jan. 31, 2016. (Photo: Justin Tang/CP)

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said many of the crimes linked to aboriginal women are related to desperation and circumstance.

"We have seen, because of racism, that our women get less response (from police) and then when they've had to stand up for themselves ... end up with harsher responses when ... they've had to stand up against their abuser, against their attacker," she said.

"The racism is that double-edged sword where it prevents us from getting attention from police when we are the victims but at the same time, it brings down the long arm of the law when our women eventually stand up for themselves."

'Uneven application of justice'

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was not available for an interview Monday, but in a statement, her office said the government is hearing from survivors, family members and loved ones about what "they perceive to be an uneven application of justice."

The government is looking to set the mandate for the inquiry by this summer.

Carolyn Bennett speaks during a news conference on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Based on this type of input and much more that we received during the pre-inquiry engagement process, our government is designing an inquiry that will both examine the causes of violence against indigenous women and girls and lead to recommendations for concrete actions to prevent future violence," the statement said.

The inquiry needs to be designed to uncover the truth, Lavell-Harvard said, adding there will likely be a lot of "ugliness that comes forward" during the process.

"If police officers are doing their best, even if it is in difficult circumstances, and they have nothing to hide, there won't be a problem," she said.

"That's really what this is all about: exposing the problems, owning the problems, so we can have effective change."

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery Canada's Missing Aboriginal Women See Gallery