After Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools, one might have thought Canada was moving towards greater equality and peace, its government allegedly passionate about atoning for the racist brutalities of the past. But is the Harper administration really filled with regret at the devastating impacts Canada’s policies have had on Aboriginal peoples? The oppressive impacts that the recently passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act (formerly Bill C-10) is sure to have on Aboriginal communities, and youth in particular, suggest the answer is a firm “no.” In harshening responses to minor crime, the Conservative Party’s law-and-order legislation will drastically increase the already disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal people behind bars, and thereby powerfully advance their marginalization.
The current racial imbalance in Canada’s inmate population largely stems from the long-time oppression of Aboriginal peoples at the hands of a colonial government, and the continued failure of the Canadian government to adequately foster equality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. For centuries, the ruling powers of the country dispossessed Native peoples of their land—an integral part of their well-being, their cultures, and their identities—and denied them sovereign rights. These still ongoing historical processes are greatly responsible for Aboriginal people living in some of the worst conditions in Canada today, with many communities still lacking the social supports, economic resources, and education and employment opportunities so valuable in preventing crime [i]. Consequently, Aboriginal people experience the highest rates of incarceration in the nation: in 2006, despite making up only 4% of the total population, 21% of male prisoners and 30% of female prisoners in Canada were Aboriginal [ii].
Whether due to social factors arising from unremitting colonial practices or discrimination within the police and justice systems, disproportional rates of criminalized actions are associated with Aboriginal people. Consequently, the Act’s wider delineation of a criminal offense and stricter sentencing policies will undoubtedly affect Aboriginal people a great deal more than the rest of the population. It will do so by implementing mandatory minimum sentences, increasing maximum sentences, and ending conditional sentences; eliminating “house arrest and pardons for serious offences” [iii]; imposing adult “or tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders” [iv]; allowing accused individuals to be easily held in custody before they are even tried; and expanding the definition of a “violent offence” to include “creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm” [v]. All told, it is likely the Act will result in exponentially higher rates of Aboriginal people in prison for longer periods of time [vi].
Chillingly, while expanding numbers of Aboriginal youth and adults spend their days locked in cages, others benefit from this cruel carceral disparity. Corporations seeking to develop natural resources on Aboriginal lands will surely encounter less resistance to their projects as this tougher crime legislation begins to remove more and more Aboriginal people from their communities and put them instead behind bars. Hampered from publicly protesting the exploitation of natural resources or advocating for their land rights while in prison, Aboriginal people and their communities will encounter huge difficulties in fighting the destruction of something so essential to their way of life. So, by working to move a growing Aboriginal population into correctional facilities, the Act will allow private corporations to rake in huge profits from fisheries, forests, oil sands, and mining with much less difficulty—an impact fittingly in line with the Harper government’s work of filling the pockets of corporations while worsening the realities of those not part of society’s 1%.
Meanwhile, this swelling inmate population will not come cheap, despite the Conservative mantra around fiscal responsibility. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has estimated that the Act will increase federal and provincial incarceration rates by 8% and 24% to 32% per year, respectively, making quite clear that this new legislation will almost definitely necessitate prison construction in the long term [vii]. Moreover, with the operating costs of incarceration ranging “anywhere from $65,000 to $130,000 a year to house a single inmate” [viii] and the likelihood that capital expenditures for Corrections Canada will rise as more people are housed in prisons, it is inevitable that this growth in the number of people behind bars will require massive amounts of funding—which many researchers have costed as at least 5 billion dollars [ix]. And yet, the federal government is “plan[ning] to slash $295 million from Corrections Canada by 2014-2015” [x] through finding efficiencies [xi].
Unfortunately, “efficiencies” could mean cuts or the privatizing of programs, both of which are likely to worsen the quality of life for inmates or to decrease the effectiveness or availability of resources and rehabilitation programs within prisons. Given the huge amounts of capital these changes to law-and-order legislation are going to require and the government’s plans to divert revenue away from this initiative, it seems inevitable that the Harper administration has plans to privatize prison services (if not prisons themselves) and thus to put the lives of the convicted in the hands of those seeking to inflate their profits by keeping inmate populations as high as possible. Consequently, like natural resource developers, private companies in the corrections industry and their investors stand to gain from this scary incarceration initiative.And so it is that the Safe Streets and Communities Act works to bolster the wealth and authority of private corporations, while draining government coffers, mobilizing racist sentiments toward minority groups, and further weakening public institutions and a collective sense of the public good—not to mention undermining the government’s role in safeguarding our common interests. This punitive approach to crime will lead only to efforts to secure private wealth in a fragile economic time, while disappearing the social problems that financial greed has had a hand in creating. Placing those who experience the difficulties resulting from colonial and capitalist processes into prisons hides these individuals away from public view.
In concealing the human outcomes of social and economic problems behind concrete walls, punitive responses to crime (like this Act) can diminish calls to establish stronger government funding and better programs for communities in need. Those individuals really in need of social supports are likely to be further debilitated through marginalization, criminalization, and incarceration, while those not aware of or not compassionate to these issues might never think past their own personal self-interest long enough to consider how appropriate spending on Aboriginal education, health care, or housing could act as an amazingly preventative solution to crime while simultaneously fostering social equality and making Canada a better place to live for all of us.
Despite a great body of research advocating preventative approaches to dealing with crime, the Conservatives’ election promise to pass “tough on crime” legislation within 100 sitting days of achieving a majority government suggests that the party was confident the Act would not receive enough criticism to slow down its policy changes—or, to be even more cynical, perhaps whatever criticism was voiced wouldn’t matter any longer. The fact is there has been very little public backlash. Hopefully, it is not yet the case that Canadians have become a citizenry apathetic to or ignorant of the suffering of others, placing their desires to feel safe ahead of any longings for equality and social justice in this moment of economic instability.
Zygmunt Bauman brilliantly details that in periods of serious instability like this, many people transfer their anxieties about security—which actually derive from very complex global problems—to concerns about national criminal activity that typically pit a country’s majority population against vulnerable minorities. This “transfer of anxiety” [xii] occurs because alleged answers to the problem of crime are much more tangible and easier to come by than are solutions to issues like a worldwide financial crisis. As Bauman explains, “building new prisons, writing up new statutes which multiply the number of breaches of the law punishable with imprisonment, and making the lengthening of sentences mandatory…[are] highly…tangible[,] visible, and so convincing” [xiii] responses to crime that thus make an insecure population feel like measures are being put in place to improve “personal safety” [xiv].
Undoubtedly, after a worldwide financial crisis, the sense of economic security among many Canadians is precarious at best. Imposed austerity measures the federal government says will bring the budget out of the red leave many people scared of lay-offs and resentful of being taxed—especially if they agree with the neoliberal logic that puts supreme faith in a market economy and interprets social spending to be a wasteful and expensive endeavor. Yet it is precisely runaway government spending on punitive and militaristic initiatives such as prison expansion and fighter jets that should be most frightening to Canadians.
With Canada’s crime rate at its lowest in almost 40 years, calls to crack down on crime simply cannot be justified through a need to hike up security measures. The Act promises to increase the safety of citizens, and thus quells (but not dispels) the unease of a population whose anxieties have been exploited to generate unfounded fears about criminality. More importantly, the Act is attractive to amoral profiteers who see a potential foothold for themselves when government regulated programs and services are weakened. Finally, for a governing party that wants to suffocate the democratic and social functions of government, there is little risk in appearing either autocratic or dysfunctional. As a result, another costly and shortsighted piece of legislation gets rammed through parliament without allowing proper parliamentary debate or public opposition to make significant amendments or prevent its passing.
Though one inevitably enters the realm of speculation when considering the motivations of Stephen Harper and his cabinet, what is undeniably clear is that the current government chose to disregard public warnings that cautioned that the Safe Streets and Communities Act would advance the oppression of Aboriginal people. The Harper administration revealed unequivocally that its true concerns involve profit and control, not anti-colonial initiatives. This contradiction of its own narrative of regret and reparation thereby exposes Harper’s apology as nothing more than a carefully crafted lie designed to blind and pacify those would fight the continued marginalization of Aboriginal peoples.
With Canada’s Prime Minister deceiving the nation’s citizens in this way, we must remember that even to begin to redress the wounds of colonization, oppression, and neglect it is up to us to be always critical of the initiatives we support and ever committed to fighting unsound and unjust initiatives like the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which is destined to brutalize people’s lives and communities in exchange for private sector revenue.
By Danielle Martak
[i] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Bill C-10: The Truth About Consequences. The CCPA. The CCPA, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[ii] From “Facts & Statistics” posted on prisonjustice.ca sourced from Juristat, Statistics Canada (2005-6). Updated August 2008.
[iii] Searls Giroux, Susan. “Lessons of Law and Order: What Canadians Can Learn from Failed US Crime Policy.” Truthout. Truthout, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Jun. 2012
[iv] CBC News. “What Worries Critics About Omnibus Crime Bill.” CBC News. CBC Radio Canada, 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[vi] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Bill C-10: The Truth About Consequences. The CCPA. The CCPA, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[vii] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Fast Facts: Bill C-10: The Truth About Consequences.” The CCPA. The CCPA, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[ix] White, Marianne. “Controversial Crime Bill to Cost Canadians $19 billion: study.” The Vancouver Sun. The Vancouver Sun, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[x] Huffington Post. “Canada Budget 2012: Highlights of the Federal Government’s Plans for Spending and Cuts.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[xi] Zochodne, Geoff. “Budget 2012 Nickels and Dimes.” The Oshawa Express. The Oshawa Express, n.d. Web. 30 Jun. 2012.
[xii] Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 119. Print.