GRSJ224/Over-Representation of Indigenous Individuals in Canada’s Criminal Justice System

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Based on government documents, past researches, and criminal justice system statistics, there is clearly a disproportionate number of Indigenous persons on trial or already convicted and being incarcerated in Canada.[1][2] According to Statistics Canada, in 2017/2018, even though Indigenous adults only account for under five percent of the overall population, Indigenous men account for 75% of Manitoba’s admissions, 74% of Saskatchewan’s admission and 28% nation-wide.[2] Indigenous women and young males are similarly over-represented.[2] Some factors that help explain this Indigenous over-representation include the after-effects of being abused in the residential school program, family breakdown, systemic poverty, racialization, discrimination, social exclusion and inequality.[3] Due to their unique experiences and long histories of colonization and cultural oppression/cultural genocide, Canada’s First Nations and Metis people have suffered more than their share of social and health inequalities.[4] As a result, many Indigenous individuals have substance abuse issues, are unable to form healthy relationships, and live below the poverty line, all of which contribute to Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system.[4] “Tough on crime” and anti-drug campaigns also seem to overly target racialized Indigenous individuals, who many believe are more likely to be convicted compared to non-Indigenous defendants. In some jurisdictions, community-based Indigenous restorative justice initiatives are now in place as an alternative to incarceration, in hopes of breaking the cycle of crime and reducing Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons.  

Incarcerated Indigenous Inmates

Multiple sources, including government documents and databases, prove that Indigenous individuals are over-represented in Canada’s criminal justice system. In 2017/2018, although Indigenous adults only account for under five percent of the Canada’s overall population, Indigenous men account for 75% of admissions in Manitoba, 74% in Saskatchewan and 28% across Canada.[2] Indigenous women and young men are similarly over-represented in federal, provincial and territorial prisons around the country, with the former accounting for 42% of female admissions and 43% of the latter.[2] Clearly something is wrong with the system if one small minority group makes up such a huge percentage of prison and jail populations across Canada.

Post-Residential School Impacts

The last Canadian residential school closed in 1996, but the long-term damage it caused to survivors and their families are still being felt today, with many survivors-inmates unable to adequately deal with being sexually and physically abused as children.[4] Among survivors, substance abuse is a common coping technique, but becoming a drug addict in order to “forget” what happened in the residential schools leaves the Indigenous survivor vulnerable to being arrested on drug charges or theft charges to pay for their drug habit. Survivors also lack parenting skills and are often unable to sustain healthy relationships. They become trapped in cycle of abuse, either as the abuser or the victim. After escaping the horrors of their residential school experience, many female survivors remain vulnerable and targeted. Being voiceless, physically defenseless, and living in poverty, many (12%) marginalized Indigenous women report being victims of non-spousal violence. Others are often unfairly treated and generally despised by the police who are supposed to protect everyone.

Racialization, Discrimination & Incarceration

Racialization may be defined as the use of racial categories and identities in order to create differences in society and may be used to legitimize one supposedly superior racial group dominating another group.[5] In this case, the white Euro-Canadian people and their representative governments have long considered themselves culturally, socially, and racially superior to the native peoples who originally lived on this land before the first European explorers and colonists arrived.[6] Over time, the white majority was able to racialize First Nations people as violent, drug-addicted “Others” who deserve to be sent to prison. “Get tough on crime” and anti-drug laws and policies greatly increased the number of Indigenous individuals getting arrested and admitted into the criminal justice system.[5] It is thus not surprising that there is a widespread belief that Canadian courts are not treating defendants equally on the basis of race. Instead, many defense lawyers and even court judges believe that Indigenous defendants are unfairly perceived, tried, and sentenced because of racial discrimination.[3][7] Some Winnipeg police officers have even been witnessed mistreating Indigenous individuals and calling the women “squaw, dirty Indian, and f....... Indian”.[3]

Indigenous Restorative Justice Initiatives

In some jurisdictions, there are new Indigenous restorative justice initiatives being implemented in hopes of reducing the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons and jails. The hope is that by bringing together victims, Indigenous offenders and their communities in a calm, facilitated environment, the people involved can resolve most of the issues, repair any harm committed, and restore peace to the community without resorting to jail or prison time.[3] Indigenous restorative justice initiatives have been used successfully to mediate and reach mutually acceptable agreements between all stakeholders in crimes ranging from shoplifting to domestic violence, from mischief to physical assault.[3] At present, though, these initiatives are still not widely used and so have had minimal impact on reducing Indigenous over-representation in the justice system.

  1. Trevethan, S., Moore, J. P., & Rastin, C. J. (2002). Aprofile of Aboriginal offenders in federal facilities and serving time in the community. Drugs, 3, 8.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Malakieh, J. (2019). Adult and youth correctional statistics in Canada, 2017/2018. Juristat: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1-26.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Hansen, J. (2014). Indigenous-settler incarceration disparities in Canada: How tribal justice programming helps urban Indigenous youth. Indigenous Policy Journal, 25(3).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Zalcman, D. (2016). " Kill the Indian, Save the Man": On the painful legacy of Canada's residential schools. World Policy Journal, 33(3), 72-85.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Marshall, S. G. (2015). Canadian drug policy and the reproduction of Indigenous inequities. International Indigenous Policy Journal, 6(1).
  6. Hanson, Erin. (2009). “The Residential School System.” Indigenous Foundation, UBC.
  7. Reasons, C., Hassan, S., Ma, M., Monchalin, L., Bige, M., Paras, C., & Arora, S. (2016). Race and Criminal Justice in Canada. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 11(2).