A panel discussion on Aboriginal incarceration was one of the many events that took place at this year’s Culture Shock, an annual event which looks to dispel the stereotypes surrounding immigrants, refugees, Indigenous peoples and communities of colour. Hosted by the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), the event seeks to bring these communities together in order to educate the public on the issues faced by these groups.

Canada Behind Bars: On the Incarceration of Indigenous Communities brought together Jessica Danforth, the executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Patricia Eshkibok, from the Native Para-Judicial Services of Quebec, and Konwatsitsa:wi Meloche, an educator from Kahnawake.

Eshkibok began by speaking about the high rates of Indigenous incarceration as a direct connection to residential schools and how that system destroyed First Nations families and communities by creating inter-generational problems that continue to this day.

“Indigenous people are paying the price today for what happened in those residential schools,” she said.

Indigenous people make up about 4% of the Canadian population but they comprise 23% of the prison population – a 40% increase since 2001. A factor in those shocking statistics is that many Indigenous men and women end up serving longer sentences and are denied programs that would help them get out of prison earlier. First Nations women are especially vulnerable and serve longer sentences in solitary confinement than do their non-Native counterparts.

Danforth said that First Nations communities are facing a crisis, which can be directly linked to the residential schools and the Indian Act that stripped First Nations women of their rights and left them vulnerable to violence. She stressed the need for men to speak out about violence against women.

The final speaker, Meloche, shared her story about racism. “We are born into racism, born into violence and it is state violence that is hurting us.”

Meloche spoke about the racism behind the Indian Act and asked why was it necessary. “Racism is the fear of sharing power.” But more importantly, she pointed out, it is institutionalized racism. “Nowhere in Canada does a particular group have something like the Indian Act governing them. How is that right?”

One incident Meloche shared with the audience was an evening she and a friend went to a nightclub in Châteauguay. After standing in line for some time, the bouncer eventually told them, “No Indians allowed.” Naturally she was very upset about the encounter. “I felt so humiliated, I had to walk past all those people, some of whom were quite rude.”

When asked about how to turn the tide, Meloche said we need stand up against the government and the Indian Act needs to be eliminated.