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Aboriginal Sex Offenders: Melding Spiritual Healing with Cognitive-Behavioural Treatment

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Aboriginal offenders are over-represented in the Canadian prison system. In 1991, aboriginals comprised 12% of federal, and 19% of provincial admissions (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1991), while only accounting for 2.5% of the Canadian population (Statistics Canada, 1991).


As of July 1997, there were 14,961 incarcerated offenders and 8,005 supervised offenders.1

Region Incarcerated Supervised
  # % # %
Atlantic 1428 9.5% 859 10.7%
Quebec 4031 26.9% 2386 29.8%
Ontario 3880 25.9% 1973 24.6%
Prairies 3580 23.9% 1820 22.7%
Pacific 2042 13.6% 967 12.1%
National 14961   8005  

Sex Offenders account for 19% of the incarcerated population and 12.6 % of the supervised population.2

Region Incarcerated Supervised Total
  # % # %  
Atlantic 286 10.1% 142 14.1% 428
Quebec 514 18.1% 179 17.8% 693
Ontario 720 25.4% 209 20.7% 929
Prairies 913 32.1% 333 33.0% 1246
Pacific 407 14.3% 145 14.4% 552
National 2840   1008   3848

At increasing rates, aboriginal people are incarcerated federally, provincially and territorially. That tendency may be perpetuated through cultural and ethnic biases within the system, which do not take into account the customs, values and traditions of aboriginal people. Use of these strategies could alleviate the violence in aboriginal communities. In addition, there may be systemic biases in the judicial system. One aboriginal leader noted that the present criminal justice system has never integrated nor taken into consideration the pre-existing values, norms or concepts of aboriginal justice. She has found the programs for aboriginals inappropriate because they incorporate the values, ideologies, beliefs and thought processes of non-aboriginals (McIvor, 1995).

The aboriginal offender population has increased steadily from 9% in 1982-83, to 9.6% in 1987 (Task Force Report, 1988). In 1994, the Prairie Region aboriginal offender population was 38%, while it was 11% nationwide for aboriginal offenders.

aboriginal sex offenders (Inuit, North American Indian and Métis) account for about 700 out of the 3850 sex offenders identifiable through OMS, or 18%. Also, a high proportion of aboriginals are sex offenders - 26% of the 2802 aboriginal offenders. This is a disproportionately large percentage.

The Prairie Region has the largest share of both non-aboriginal and aboriginal sex offenders. The Prairie and Pacific Regions together, account for 85% of aboriginal sex offenders.

Region Non-aboriginal Aboriginal Total
  # % # % # %
Atlantic 261 11.3% 25 4.6%> 286 10.1%
Quebec 471 20.5% 43 8.0% 514 18.1%
Ontario 687 29.9% 33 6.1% 720 25.4%
Prairies 561 24.4% 352 65.3% 913 32.1%
Pacific 321 14% 86 16.0% 407 14.3%
National 2301   539   2840  

The following table shows the distribution of aboriginal and non-aboriginal sex offenders in the community. Again, the Prairie and Pacific Regions have the largest number of aboriginal sex offenders. There were 59 men who were under Provincial jurisdiction while Federally supervised, and of these, 14 were aboriginal.

Region Non-aboriginal Aboriginal Total
  # % # % # %
Atlantic 135 16.4% 7 3.8% 142 14.1%
Quebec 170 20.7% 9 4.9% 179 17.8%
Ontario 202 24.5% 7 3.8% 209 20.7%
Prairies 200 24.3% 133 71.9% 333 33.0%
Pacific 116 14.1% 29 15.7% 145 14.4%
National 823   185   1008  

By 2010, the aboriginal offender population serving sentences in federal institutions is expected to rise to 38% nationwide. A table shown in the Globe and Mail of July 20th, 1995, clearly indicates the proportion of aboriginal offenders in federal and provincial institutions compared with aboriginals in the general population by region:

Province or region Aboriginals in general population Aboriginals in provincial jails Aboriginals in federal prisons
Atlantic 2.4% 4.5% 4.3%
Quebec 2.2% 2.0% 1.7%
Ontario 2.2% 7.0% 4.4%
Manitoba 11.5% 47.0% 40.2%
Saskatchewan 10.8% 72.0% 34.3%
Alberta 6.2% 34.0% 31.0%
British Columbia 5.0% 16.0% 13.9%
Yukon 29.1% 62.0% *
NWT 59.8% 90.0% *

* There are no federal prisons in the territories

Sources: Correctional Service of Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

In 1988, 74% of aboriginal offenders were defined as Indians; 23% Metis; and 2.4% Inuit. According to Prairie Region sources, 23.4% of aboriginal offenders originated from urban centres, with over 10,000 people; 35% were from communities with populations between 100 and 10,000; 28.5% were from communities close to an urban centre; and 15.3% were from isolated and rural areas (Final Report Task Force on aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections [hereinafter "Task Force Report"], 1988). Most aboriginal offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds and less than 20% had a grade ten education. Among aboriginal offenders, 76% were found to be abusing alcohol and less than 17% were employed when admitted to a federal facility. Two thirds had no previous skilled employment and only 22% had some vocational training. From these numbers, the Task Force Report concluded that, "aboriginal offenders are likely to have important needs that should be addressed by institutional programming and release planning."


A higher proportion of aboriginal offenders commit crimes of violence as opposed to their non-aboriginal counterparts. Compared to non-aboriginal offenders, the difference is 73% versus 65%. Crimes against the person involve 55% of aboriginal offenders, compared to less than 35% of non-aboriginal offenders (1988). A 1993 study found that aboriginal offenders were more likely to commit offenses against the person and were more likely to be convicted of violent sexual offenses than non-aboriginals (Hann and Harman, 1993). It also found that male aboriginal offenders were twice as likely to have their parole revoked than non-aboriginal offenders.

aboriginal offenders were also found to be at higher risk for violent recidivism and were more likely to be returned to prison than non-aboriginal offenders. A study done on the characteristics of aboriginal recidivists found that the recidivism rate was 66% and that aboriginal inmates with shorter sentences were more likely to recidivate (Bonta, Lipinski and Martin, 1992). The authors stipulate that these numbers should not be interpreted as a case for longer sentences. The lower recidivism rate for non-aboriginals with longer sentences may be confounded with other factors such as offence type and socio-personal characteristics that may be more relevant to the prediction of recidivism. They suggest that, in general, criminal history variables found to predict recidivism among non-aboriginals were also good predictors of recidivism for aboriginal inmates.

Length Of Sentence

There were 369 sex offenders serving indeterminate sentences and most of these (81%) were not on conditional release to the community. aboriginal offenders made up 143 of this group, or 39% - a disproportionate number. However, of the 369, only 58 had the pre 1977 Dangerous Sexual Offender designation, and only 2 of these were aboriginals.

Of those offenders serving determinate sentences, the non-aboriginal group had a higher average aggregate sentence: 6.1 years versus 5.1 for the aboriginal sex offenders.

In 1988 aboriginal offenders were less likely to be released on parole or mandatory supervision than other offenders (Task Force Report, 1988). This report found that 18.3% of aboriginal offenders were released on parole or mandatory supervision compared to 42.1% of offenders. The percentage of aboriginal offenders on conditional release was 32% in 1988, compared to 43.3% of other offenders. It also indicated that only 10% of aboriginal offenders were released on full parole compared to 20.4% of federal offenders.

In summary, the conviction and incarceration rates for aboriginal offenders is higher than for the rest of the population. Criminal behavior in aboriginals as in mainstream society, is closely related to socio-economic background. Solutions to the aboriginal criminal problem must take into account the socio-economic conditions of the reserves and elsewhere (Task Force Report, 1988).

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is often encountered in aboriginal communities. A 1994 study on substance abuse programs for aboriginals, found that drug and alcohol abuse amongst aboriginals were serious criminogenic factors (Weeks & Millson, 1994). The exercise of emotional restraint, as described by Dr. Brant, creates a phenomenon where repressed hostility is released under the influence of alcohol. The shyness inherent to aboriginals increases the risk of substance abuse. In the experience of Dr. Brant, the incidence of sexual abuse of children and the incidence of sexual assault in the aboriginal population is strongly connected to the abuse of alcohol (Brant, 1993).

A study of the relationship between substance abuse and crime among aboriginal American Inmates by the Nebraska Department of Corrections, found that regardless of the type of crime, the majority of crime by Indians is alcohol-related (Grobsmith, 1989). Despite the fact that Nebraska's population is only 1% Indian, 7% of all serious criminal arrests and 25% of all public drunkenness arrests were aboriginal Americans (French and Hornbuckle, 1982).

Grobsmith's study suggests that alcohol is the single most serious health problem among American Indian people. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism rates are several times higher for Indians than for the general population. Alcoholism, accidents, cirrhosis, suicide, and homicide together account for 35% of all Indian deaths (French and Hornbuckle, 1982). Since the highest alcohol consumption occurs in males between 25 and 44, the vulnerability and susceptibility of this group to criminal activity is exceptionally high (Grobsmith, 1989). Grobsmith concludes that explanations for alcoholism and drug abuse in Indians abound, but no single explanation is adequate.

Whatever the causes of substance abuse, it is certainly a contributing factor to the disarray within Indian communities: the Nebraska courts are seeing fifth generation addiction to alcohol. A serious growing problem related to generational addictions is the experimentation by young Indians with inhalants such as gasoline, spray paint fumes, correction fluid, and lysol spray. Children who use inhalants generally come from families where there is parental alcoholism and where children have suffered abuse or neglect by their parents (Carroll, 1977).

Grobsmith's study suggests that revitalization of, and identification with, aboriginal American religious ideology plays a strongly supportive role in affecting aboriginal American sobriety and rehabilitation. In the Nebraska prison system, the revitalization of aboriginal beliefs is cited as the primary factor in inmate sobriety. Cultural norms make the admission of personal weakness, public confessions, and drawing attention to oneself, inhibit the aboriginal American from being willing to single himself out in standard treatment programs - a process often required in non-aboriginal treatment protocols. The lack of negative sanctions and the difficulty in admitting personal weakness reduce the likelihood of AA's success with aboriginal American drinkers. Since alcoholism is closely related to offense commission, it would be reasonable to treat alcoholism using more culturally appropriate approaches.

Treatment Of aboriginal Offenders

Treatment of aboriginal offenders is not an easy task for non-aboriginal practitioners. According to Dr. Brant, mental health professionals and paraprofessionals who assess aboriginal offenders, prison inmates and accused, find them passive, difficult to assess and reserved. Dr. Brant suggests that this behaviour is related to the principle of non-interference and emotional restraint, and affects the individual aboriginal's performance in an assessment situation. The health care practitioners' failure to recognize the influence of the individual's cultural heritage on their behavior in clinical situations, may result in errors in diagnosis, formulation, and treatment (Brant, 1993). As a result, the encounter between the patient and the professional, may vary from unproductive to traumatic.

The 1988 Task Force Report concluded that because of the link that unites the aboriginal people and their culture, treatment services must consider both culture and beliefs. The Report also indicates that aboriginal offenders see Elders in a positive manner. In some facilities, aboriginal Elders are engaged on a full-time basis, especially in the Pacific and Prairie Regions. In a Globe and Mail article on aboriginal inmates, Peter Moon found a change in Corrections Services' approach to understanding of aboriginal spirituality (Globe and Mail, July 20th, 1995). According to Mr. Moon, Warden Art Majkut, endorsed the aboriginal healing process in prison. He suggested that the lack of documentation and studies on the healing process makes senior bureaucrats of Correctional Service Canada reluctant to fund Medicine Men to work in prisons. Mr. Majkut stresses that Elders and Medicine Men can provide a more accurate assessment of an aboriginal inmate's capacity to successfully complete parole. He felt that they also opened up the spiritual horizons of aboriginal offenders, which results in reduced recidivism. The Warden's comments reinforce the Task Force's conclusions, although rigorous studies will need to provide empirical support for these beliefs.

A problem related to traditional aboriginal practices in prisons is the fact that there are few reserves that have developed a full array of spiritual programs. Campbell Papequash, a Salteaux Elder and Healer, suspects that most of the inmates benefiting from spiritual programs, in prisons such as Stony Mountain, abandon the practices when they are released... (Globe and Mail, July 20th, 1995). If there is more spiritual guidance available behind bars than in the community, aboriginal offenders may find themselves unable to connect with traditional support upon release. In addition to the need for aboriginal programs within prisons, traditional resources in the community are recognized as equal in importance.

It has been suggested that community-based correctional facilities under the control of aboriginal communities should take responsibility for maintaining the healing practices initiated during incarceration. This implies that offenders must not be removed from the care and custody of the aboriginal community. Such an approach would require not only healing the offender, but also his or her family. This process could benefit both the offenders and the victims.

It is clear that aboriginal people have specific needs in prisons, but the cultural and spiritual aspects of their "price to pay for the crime they committed" must be taken into consideration, if we want to reduce the disproportionate rate at which they are incarcerated.

1 This total includes parole plus temporary detentions and federally supervised provincial offenders, less those offenders who were deported.

2 There has been some discussion that these numbers of sex offenders understate the "true" number by about 17% due to the formative stage of this aspect of OMS development. The base numbers, however, will be used through this report. Sex Offenders are defined as having a sexually-related offence on any sentence.