Prime Minister Stephen Harper ushered in five new senators at the end of January to help solidify his tough-on-crime policy, but tough on crime might just mean being tougher on some of Canada’s most marginalized people.

For the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit (SIS) initiative, the new appointments did cause some alarm as stacking the Senate means that the Conservative’s legislative law-and-order agenda gets a right of way. The only problem is that this might mean more policing and under protecting Canada’s Aboriginal women.

According to Sisters in Spirit Director Kate Rexe, the Conservative’s tough-on-crime agenda hits Aboriginal women much harder, because they are involved in the criminal justice system at far greater rates than non-Aboriginal women.

Rexe said that in a report released by the Office of the Correctional Investigator in 2009, it found that one-out-of-three Aboriginal women are coming into the system despite the fact that they represent less than 2% of the overall population in Canada. It also found that there has been 151% increase in the incarceration rate of Aboriginal women in the past decade.

“What we are finding is that there is certainly involvement within the criminal justice system which shows that tough-on-crime means throwing people into jail, but there are also extraordinarily high rates of victimization against Aboriginal women. I would argue that there is a lack of responsiveness to protect women who may fall victim to violence and violent crime. But they are quick to respond in terms of throwing them in jail when there may be experiences or other conflicts within the criminal justice system,” said Rexe.

While more Aboriginal women are becoming incarcerated, the statistics on violent crime in terms of Aboriginal females show that they are significantly more vulnerable.

According to SIS data, Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginal women. They are also are more likely to experience severe forms of spousal violence, including beating, choking, threats with a weapon (knife or gun) and rape. The homicide rate for Aboriginal women is about seven times higher than for non-Aboriginal women and, according to Statistics Canada, about six in 10 incidences of violence against Aboriginal women are not reported.

Rexe said there are a number of factors within the Canadian justice system that contribute to the rates of Aboriginal women behind bars, starting from a general lack of sensitivity from police towards them to the extent of criminalizing the victims at times.

At the same time, what is happening is that street-level gang activity and crime is being cracked down on at far greater rates than the large crime organizations, according to Rexe.

“Aboriginal peoples are often in conflict with the justice system and police over petty issues that relate more often to poverty and lack of access to resources,” said Rexe.

While this might be her professional opinion, Rexe acknowledged that finding the data to back this up is difficult. SIS is one of the only groups in Canada that researches the root causes for Aboriginal women in the justice system along with Canada’s legacy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

In order to change the current incarceration trend, Rexe said there needs to be a reflection on exactly what crime and what the root causes and circumstances that lead to crime are. Being tough on crime also means supporting and recognizing the needs of the victims.

This, however, is a problem for many Aboriginal families as in many instances, unless they are located within an urban area, they have no access to victim’s services and other resources that are available to the rest of Canadians. At that, these services and resources need to be culturally appropriate and there is very little available to Aboriginals outside of the resources developed for Residential School survivors.

Having government support for organizations like SIS that are devoted to addressing violence against Aboriginal women, particularly in cases where it is racialized and/or sexualized, is also essential.

SIS has been collecting data on Aboriginal women and examining these trends for five years now, but come March, they may loose their funding. The group has been in financial limbo since 2009 and question who will carry on their mission if their funding is not renewed.

Without appropriate funding, their data will not be transmitted to policing and justice systems and political parties that could effectively change the system. Plus, without their public face and ability to raise awareness, who will serve as a voice for these incarcerated women, the missing and the murdered?