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As an MP, Greg Fergus’ job has taken him to some unusual places, including behind the walls of federal penitentiaries. The Liberal MP for Hull-Alymer was shocked at what he discovered.

“When I saw the number of Indigenous Peoples who were incarcerated … it just shocked me. I’m talking about northern Saskatchewan,” Fergus said Thursday at an Ottawa press conference where the federal government announced $1.5 million in funding to help Métis organizations co-develop its Indigenous Justice Strategy.

The Indigenous Justice Strategy is intended to address systemic racism and to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples, including Métis citizens, in Canada’s criminal justice system, according to the federal government’s website.

More than 50 per cent of women in maximum security prisons are Indigenous, according to a recent report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator. In total, Indigenous offenders make up 32 per cent of people incarcerated in Canada’s criminal justice system, while only representing five per cent of the country's population, according to an access-to-information request filed by Canada’s National Observer.

The federal government unveiled the Indigenous Justice Strategy back in 2021, but it contained no established timeframe, according to reporting by CBC News.

The funding announced Thursday is allocated over three years. It’s unclear if the Indigenous Justice Strategy is expected soon after the work done by Métis organizations is completed.

The announcement comes on the heels of Ottawa repealing several mandatory minimum sentences late last year. That same bill also expanded conditional sentences, which the federal government says will help alleviate the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada’s prisons.

However, the bill stopped short of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action to remove all mandatory minimums.

In a previous interview with Canada’s National Observer, Sen. Kim Pate called mandatory minimum penalties a “red herring” that distracts from the systemic realities of Canada’s criminal justice system.

The $1.5 million over three years will fund Métis organizations' work to co-develop Ottawa's Indigenous Justice Strategy. However, it's unclear how many years away we are from the strategy's implementation. #Canpoli #Reconciliation #JusticeReform

Statistically, the mandatory minimums repealed, and the expansion of conditional sentences, will have a “great impact” and “it’s not just a matter of the number of [mandatory minimums] that were removed, but a matter of which,” Justice Minister David Lametti said at the press conference.

When asked how the funding will help prisoners today, Lametti pointed to repealing mandatory minimums, expanding conditional sentences, and a metaphor. He described reforming the justice system as a process of trying to “strip off the layers that were laid over by colonialism for over 150 to 200 years,” he said.

“All we can do is identify them and strip them back. Admittedly, we started 150 years too late,” he added.

Cassidy Carron, Métis National Council president, called the funding “one piece of the puzzle,” pointing to the work needed at the community and system levels.

“I hope we look back on this in 20 years and how important [the Indigenous Justice Strategy] was in transforming our country,” Fergus said.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative