A number of high-profile studies were released over the past several years interrogating the relationship between past and present racial discrimination in the United States, particularly in connection with contemporary political structures and social justice issues. In 2010, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and professor at the Union Theological Seminary, published a critically acclaimed study, The New Jim Crow. The book uncovers a continuum linking slavery and the Jim Crow era to the contemporary U.S. criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes and incarcerates African-Americans. In establishing this relationship, Alexander demonstrated how the “old” system that legally subordinated communities of color has continued to persist. Beginning in the 1950s, it was restructured through a rhetoric of law and order, which continues to target Black men and women to this day.
Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary 13TH (2016) similarly challenged structural anti-Black racism in the United States as a thing of the “past.” As DuVernay’s film emphasized, even though the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished slavery over 150 years ago, the mass incarceration of African Americans has allowed for a racialized system of involuntary servitude to continue.
In Canada, a critical public discourse has similarly emerged to explore the impact of European settler-colonialism on Indigenous communities (Métis, First Nations, and Inuit). Indeed, during the 2015 federal election campaign, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party made “reconciliation” a cornerstone of their platform. Even so, a deep interrogation of how the settler-colonial past continues to inform present circumstances in Canada has yet to fully develop.
On Tuesday, October 31, 2017, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada released its latest report on the country’s federal prison services. The report, which was written by acting Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger, explores a number of important issues, but it is the portion on incarceration of Indigenous people that is perhaps most alarming.
According to Zinger, the incarceration rate for indigenous peoples is among the “most pressing social justice and human rights issue in Canada today.” The report shows that between 2007 and 2016, the Indigenous federal prison population shot up 39% (the overall inmate population increased by less than 5%). Indigenous individuals currently represent more than a quarter (26.4%) of federal inmates (37.6% of all female federal inmates). This, despite a steadily declining national crime rate over the past five decades, as well as the fact that Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the Canadian population. The report also illustrates that Indigenous inmates are released much later in their sentences and are subjected to higher security transfers and enforced segregation while in federal custody. These disturbing statistics clearly demonstrate, in short, that Canada’s criminal justice system is biased against Indigenous communities.
Despite its importance, the report has yet to make its way into mainstream political conversation. This is not, however, the first time these issues have been publicly aired. The incarceration crisis facing Indigenous communities has been reported on in previous years and in equally damning terms. In 2013, then Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said that Canada’s prison system “defines systemic discrimination.” Back then, as now, there was barely a ripple in the public discourse about these issues.
While the Canadian government (and public) has gone a long way in terms of acknowledging the historical impact of settler-colonialism on Indigenous communities, Canadians prefer to interpret ongoing political, social, and economic issues facing Indigenous communities as the legacy of a terrible past. And so, public discussions, as well as the government’s agenda, is focused not so much on inequitable funding, ongoing treaty rights cases, or the asymmetric jailing of Indigenous populations, but rather on scrapping the Indian Act of 1876, breaking up the Indigenous Affairs department (the government’s “colonial-era apparatus”), and apologizing for the defunct residential school system.
The issues impacting Indigenous communities today are not simply a legacy of the ‘colonial ways’ of previous governments. They are the result of current policies, political decisions, and injustices. Current attempts at “reconciliation” are sure to fail unless Canadians are prepared to recognize the persistence of settler-colonial relations.