Indigenous youth overrepresented in justice system: federal data

Indigenous youth account for only seven per cent of the overall population, but make up 41 per cent of those entering the justice system.

OTTAWA – Figures from the Justice Department paint a dark picture of the state of indigenous incarceration, with aboriginal youth seriously overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Data recently provided by the department to brief Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says indigenous youth account for only seven per cent of the overall population, but make up 41 per cent of those entering the justice system.

The documents, obtained by The Canadian Press, also say the problem has ballooned over the last decade and point to bias in the policing, justice and corrections systems.

Related from Maclean’s: Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’

Inflated incarceration rates are, in fact, the product of a tangled web of problems plaguing indigenous communities, including educational failures and a lack of mental-health resources, said Charlie Angus, the NDP indigenous affairs critic.

“The result is all of Canadian society is paying the price in the outrageous numbers for education rates, spikes in suicide, victims of violence and incarceration,” Angus said.

“You can track the results: the lower education outcomes, the higher suicides, the higher victim of violence rates, the outrageous numbers of incarcerated people. It runs … through the government’s denial of services and limiting of opportunities for indigenous children and youth.”

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, who has extensively documented challenges for aboriginal offenders inside the federal system, called the figures “atrocious” and said they reflect systemic failures.

“The criminal justice system is really a barometer of those failures,” Sapers said in an interview.

“We have some prescriptions that we think would be helpful when it comes to particularly the administration of federal corrections, but you know, it would be so much better to prevent the harm to begin with than it is to try and prescribe a cure once people are already … within that system.”

One of the central problems is the state of the child-welfare system, Sen. Murray Sinclair said Tuesday,

The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said indigenous children continue to be apprehended on the basis that families cannot be trusted, but says the system often fails to place children in safe environments.

Sinclair said the figures are an “indictment of both systems” and stressed that they should not be looked at separately.

“The child-welfare system and the model that it is following, is at the centre of those numbers and can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, even for adults,” he said in an interview.

Sinclair recalls that in a survey conducted in 1991, more than 70 per cent of adult inmates in the federal system had prior experience with the child welfare system.

“The failure of one … is the a reflection of failure of the other,” he said.

The high rates of indigenous youth in custody is clearly a matter for concern, Wilson-Raybould’s spokesman said in a statement Tuesday.

“The minister’s mandate letter directs her to review the changes in our criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade with a view to, among other things, reducing the rate of incarceration amongst indigenous Canadians,” Andrew Gowing said.

“The minister is working with the minister of public safety, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and others to examine the factors which lead to people becoming involved in, or are at risk of being involved in, the justice system.”

Wilson-Raybould, a former First Nations leader herself, is aware incarceration is often a reflection of disadvantage in the areas of education, employment, health, and mental health, Gowing added.

Words remain cold comfort for suffering indigenous youth, Angus said.

“I think what we see in these documents is the government is aware of the racial lens that is being applied to indigenous people, so talk really isn’t good enough,” he said.

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