Harper’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda mostly just tough on minorities


Since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, his government has emphasized a “tough on crime” agenda. It’s a counterintuitive approach for a country whose crime rate has been steadily falling since 1972, but it’s also a classic oldie for conservatives.

Over the last seven years this focus has included mandatory minimum sentences for minor offences, criminalizing face coverings during protests, reversing modest steps toward decriminalizing marijuana and a new bill that would expand police powers to tap phones and computers under the guise of ending cyber-bullying. Naturally, the increased focus on punishing criminals has led to more people being put in jail.

On Tuesday, Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers had his latest report tabled in Parliament. The report is a horrifying indictment of a system far larger than it has any reason to be, one that either targets or takes as collateral damage visible minorities.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers.

According to the CBC, “the number of visible minorities in Canadian prisons has increased by 75 per cent in the past decade, while the number and proportion of inmates who are Caucasian has declined significantly.” In that same time, the incarceration of aboriginal women has increased by 80 per cent. Aboriginal people now make up roughly 25 per cent of the nation’s prison population.

That same group comprises just four per cent of the national population.

Over the past five years the federal corrections budget has increased by 40 per cent, to over $2.5 billion; much of that increase is dedicated to the construction of 2,700 new cells. These cells are badly needed, with more than one fifth of male prisoners double-bunked in cells meant for one inmate.

Crowding prisoners together like so many sardines (which, unlike prison inmates, are not living humans) has increased tensions among inmates. It should have been obvious this would happen because: a) people rarely like sharing their space with strangers, no matter how much they have; b) prison cells are not constructed to be spacious for their intended occupants; and c) prison is an incredibly stressful place to be to begin with.

Unsurprisingly, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney took issue with the bulk of Sapers’ message.

“The only minority I would say we are interested in are the criminals,” Blaney said. I like to imagine him doing theatrical scare quotes on “minority” and hamming it up for the CPAC cameras because it makes him seem equally as awful as his comments do, but adds a bit of brevity.

According to Sapers, the recent increase in prison inmates is “almost exclusively” due to larger numbers of aboriginal and other minorities behind locked up.

In the prairies, aboriginal people make up as much as 80 per cent of the prison population (PDF).

Canada has a long history of abusing and oppressing aboriginal people (and other groups), and anyone who claims that is all in the past is either an idiot or a racist. They’re probably both, but you can decide that for yourself. Either way, this report highlights simply the most recent in a litany of crimes Canada has committed against aboriginal people.

[2012-13 Correctional Investigator Report | CBC] [image via carrib/Flickr]

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