Posted on May 12, 2022

Indigenous Women Make Up Half the Female Population in Canada’s Federal Prisons

Patrick White, Globe and Mail, May 5, 2022

Indigenous women now account for half of the female population in federal penitentiaries, a state of affairs Canada’s prison ombudsman calls “shocking and shameful.”

As of last week, federal prisons held 298 non-Indigenous women and 298 Indigenous women. This is the first time the ratio has reached 50/50, the ombudsman, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger, told The Globe. One out of every 20 women in Canada is Indigenous.

Ottawa has made countless pledges over the years to address the issue of Indigenous overrepresentation in prison. In its 2001 Speech from the Throne, the Chrétien government vowed to eliminate the disparity within a generation. Indigenous imprisonment soared under the Harper government, which introduced a series of mandatory minimum sentences that criminologists have said had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.

In 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters directed the Ministers of Justice and Public Safety to address the overrepresentation issue. But the trend has defied all government efforts to reverse it.

“It’s just shocking and shameful for a country that has so many resources,” Dr. Zinger said.

Rates of Indigenous incarceration in Canada have been on the rise for decades. Twenty-six years ago, an inquiry into Kingston’s Prison for Women found Indigenous women made up 19 per cent of the country’s female prison population.

In 1999, the year the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark Gladue decision declared that the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons constituted “a crisis in the Canadian criminal justice system,” Indigenous men and women together made up 12 per cent of the country’s federal inmates. Now, they make up 32 per cent.

These figures do not account for Indigenous people who are inmates in provincial jails.

Dr. Zinger and his predecessors have warned of the relentless increase in Indigenous incarceration rates for years and issued recommendations intended to curb the rise. But getting the government to act has been difficult, he said.


The MMIWG inquiry found that most Indigenous women who become entangled in the criminal justice system are arrested for crimes of poverty, such as theft. “It’s not that they’re inherently criminal, it’s that they’re poor,” said Marion Buller, who was chief commissioner of the inquiry.

Once involved with the courts, Indigenous people tend to receive higher security classifications and lower reintegration scores than non-Indigenous inmates, reducing their chances of serving parts of their sentences outside high-security prisons. People with lower risk assessments might be allowed to serve out some of their time in less secure facilities, where inmates typically have more freedom and better quality of life.


In 1996, Ottawa tried to address the issue of Indigenous overrepresentation in prison with a Criminal Code provision that directed judges to consider a person’s Indigenous background during sentencing. The government’s hope was that this would mitigate sentences and divert significant numbers of Indigenous people away from incarceration. The Supreme Court’s 1999 Gladue decision reaffirmed the provision.