Saturday, November 05, 2022

What is behind the soaring Indigenous incarceration rates?

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) - after many years of calls from many different sources including the National inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, various parliamentary committees on the status of women and public safety, and CSC's own Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, on more than one occasion - is to fill a new position called "Deputy Commissioner, Indigenous Corrections", which is to address the soaring rates of Indigenous incarceration in Canada, particularly among women.

I must confess, I am at a loss to explain the prevalence of Indigenous incarcerations. It's something of an epidemic, and it doesn't show any signs of getting any better. 

The conventional wisdom is that anti-Indigenous racism is the main cause. But this takes away all agency from the Indigenous people themselves. Brown and Asian people in Canada suffer from institutionalized racism too, and often live in relative poverty, but their incarceration rates are much LOWER than the average

Which suggests to me that internal cultural norms may be a much more important factor than imposed racism. That's probably a very contentious assertion, I understand. 

It's no secret that violence is rife in Indigenous communities, especially domestic partner violence, as is alcoholism and drug abuse, which are often contributing factors. This is usually blamed on colonialization and forced assimilation and the ongoing fallout from the residential school system. These are almost certainly factors, but how individuals deal with this legacy seems to vary immensely. Some see it as a challenge to be overcome, and many Indigenous people seemed to be able to live rich, fulfilling, even exemplary, lives. Others fall into the trap of victimhood, and check out completely from any positive trajectory of life. I can see how this would happen, and can well imagine being there myself in different circumstances.

But it's hard to know to what extent the culture (both ancient and more modern) of Indigenous communities is, by its very nature, a violent one, at least compared to, say, an Indian or Philippino community. North American Indigenous cultures like to portray themselves as peace-loving, matriarchal custodians of the earth. And there may indeed be an element of that in Indigenous culture, but there is also a historical element of cruel, macho and violent warmongering, and who knows how these different traditions play out in day-to-day life.

I guess I am just naturally suspicious of a narrative that tries to explain everything in a pat, single-variable manner. Surely, not all of the disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous people can be explained by racism, institutional or otherwise. Maybe the daily lives of Indigenous people, particularly in the more remote, under-serviced regions where they traditionally live, predispose them to a more violent and chaotic lifestyle.

I say good luck to the soon-to-be-announced "Deputy Commissioner, Indigenous Correction". Maybe he or she will be able to weed out some root causes of the current malaise. How such causes may be addressed, though, may be far outside of the job description.

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