Howard Sapers is ringing the alarm. If the rate of incarceration of a specific community’s people is an indication of the health of that community, First Nations in Canada are in an emergency.

Sapers is the Correctional Investigator of Canada. His job is to provide an independent oversight over how the most fundamental power of the state in a free society – that power being to take away an individual’s freedom – is wielded. It’s a fundamental role in a democratic system. And, according to the report he issued on Aboriginal incarceration rates March 7, that power has never been more disproportionately imposed on Native people in Canada than the present.

In the last five years alone, Sapers underlined, the population of First Nations, Inuit and Métis inmates in federal penitentiaries has skyrocketed by 43%.

Look at it this way: the rate of non-Aboriginals in Canada currently serving federal sentences (two years or more) represents 109 out of 100,000. Aboriginals, however, now face federal incarceration rates of 910 out of 100,000. One in every five federal inmates is Native, vastly out of proportion to the 3% of the Canadian population composed of First Nations people. Among women, almost a third of inmates are Aboriginal.

Sapers points to a number of reasons for this: underfunding of Aboriginal offender programs is a major cause, (particularly of community healing lodges); a lack of community involvement; and a failure by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to fully implement legally required measures to address the unique position of Aboriginal offenders given their cultural history and social reality.

In fact, as Sapers wrote in Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, 20 years after enactment of the law, “CSC has failed to make the kind of systemic, policy and resource changes that are required in law to address factors within its control that would help mitigate the chronic over-representation of Aboriginal people in federal penitentiaries.”

The Correctional Investigator did acknowledge that CSC does not control who is sentenced to a federal term, much less for how long nor when they might win parole. However, his report only superficially addressed the societal conditions that might help lead to bad individual choices or the racial factors that in turn lead authorities to punish those choices more harshly.

As the Cree Grand Council Justice Coordinator Donald Nicholls observed, internal factors do not explain all of the Aboriginal population growth in prison. “We have to look at the root causes,” Nicholls insisted. “And if there are systemic issues, we have to see if these are being addressed.”

Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, I would argue that, far from addressing these issues, they are taking a radical turn for the worse.

Says Nicholls: “Residential schools, assimilationist policies and economic factors had an impact. Poverty leads to crime. Neglect: children engage in activities when there is absent parenting. We know some of the past policies have impacted parenting. This increases the chances of making bad choices. There are issues with higher drop-out rates and lower education, which lowers economic opportunities.”

And yet, it takes two to tango. And in this, at least, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee have moved far beyond many other First Nations in Canada in a short amount of time. The establishment of the Cree Justice Department in 2008 has quickly evolved into an interventionist model that seeks to enhance rehabilitation and reinsertion of Cree offenders in the community while safeguarding public safety.

It’s a hands-on approach, Nicholls explained, adding that the Sapers report emphasized the need for community engagement in helping prevent criminal behaviour and reducing the chance of recidivism after an offender has served their sentence.

“We are investing in our own people,” he said, referring to the introduction of community justice officers in each Cree community, the ongoing training they receive and the programs they administer. “These are solutions that help make an impact. To make a real difference we need to partner with other organizations: the health board, school board and youth groups.”

Nicholls’ goal is to intervene to a greater degree in case management of individual Cree offenders serving time in Quebec penitentiaries, something Sapers identified as a key part of the solution. In other words, help offenders access programs and to engage in the healing that will ultimately help them reintegrate their communities. Especially in Quebec, where language issues often become an impediment to mutual understanding and disadvantage Cree offenders when it comes to security level assessment and eligibility for conditional release, this effort can make a huge difference in shortening time spent in custody and ensuring the “clients” don’t get caught in a revolving door of repeat criminality.

Key to that effort, as the Sapers report observed, is the involvement of community Elders. “Elders would say that the land is the healer,” commented Nicholls. “If we can’t take [Cree inmates] to the land, we can bring the land back to them, for instance, by bringing them traditional foods. When they see traditional foods, they get excited, and remember positive things of their culture and the land. It reconnects them to positive memories. We are working with Quebec institutions to implement this activity.”

Another innovative exercise that Nicholls points to as a major piece of the puzzle is the “jobs not jails” program. “We work with the business community to help ex-offenders become part of the community again. When they are nearing release, our officers start looking for things in community for them to do.”

In the scale of things, these efforts are just beginning to have an impact. But Aboriginal involvement and control over their own justice systems is an essential part of self-sufficiency and political autonomy. The Cree of Eeyou Istchee are proving the truth of this through innovative and energetic efforts to repatriate the most fundamental power of a self-governing people. And it’s a model for First Nations communities in the context of the judicial catastrophe that is devastating Aboriginals across this country.