In recent years, the overrepresentation of indigenous Canadians in Canada’s criminal justice system has received much attention. Since the 1980s, various commissions in the country have been addressing indigenous justice issues. Irrespective of the policy recommendations and research emerging from the inquiries of such commissions, organizations, and individuals, the problem continues to worsen. This paper explores the overrepresentation of indigenous people in the Canadian criminal justice system. The author presents a brief extent of the problem, causes, and recommendations that can solve the issue. The concluding paragraph restates the main points in this paper and briefly summarizes the analysis.
The Extent of the Problem
Several scholars have studied this problem over years. For instance, Clark (2019) reports on the extent of this issue, the basic causes, and some measures to address the problem. The most apparent indication of the failures of Canada’s criminal justice system is the extreme overrepresentation of indigenous communities in incarceration centers across the country. According to Clark (2019), two main ways can demonstrate this. One of them examines the inmate population of indigenous people and the other one compares the imprisonment rates of indigenous people compared to the total population. From 2008 to 2018, the number of indigenous inmates in federal correctional centers increased from 20 to 28 percent (Clark, 2019). At the same time, the proportion of female inmates also rose from 32 to 40% (Clark, 2019). This problem also affected the indigenous Canadian youths. In the years 2016-2017, there were 8 percent indigenous youths across the provinces and territories in Canada (Clark, 2019). This overrepresentation was more unequal among girls as 60% of all female youth in the country’s correctional systems were indigenous females (Clark, 2019).
Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks (2019) also conducted a study evaluating the opinions of aboriginal teens and adolescents in Canada concerning the overrepresentation of indigenous youths in the country’s justice system. Mainly, this study wanted to determine the causes of the overrepresentation of youths and suggest possible solutions to the problem. The study found that Canada’s youth criminal justice system is failing native families (Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks, 2019). This is because of the greater possibility of the involvement of aboriginal young people in law enforcement than graduating from high school. According to Clark (2019), in 2016/2017, 46% of the total inmate populations in the federal incarceration centers were aboriginal youth. A more significant proportion was aboriginal female youths compared to their male counterparts.
Causes of the Problem
The three major causes of the overrepresentation of indigenous people in criminal justice are colonialism, institutional and attitudinal racism, and socio-economic aspects. According to Clark (2019), from the era of British and French contact, the colonial experience of indigenous Canadians has featured the attempts of the colonists to control the natural resources and lands owned by the indigenous people. Today, most of the tactics of colonial control are still imposed, such as aggressive relocation to designated settlements and reserves and restrictive policies like the Indian Act, a discriminatory piece of legislation (Clark, 2019). Political powers passed numerous amendments that enacted various repressive policies during the early years. Examples include the prohibition of indigenous farmers from using machines, banning of the Sundance on the prairies, and involuntary enfranchisement at a particular education level. The indigenous communities were also not allowed to hire lawyers to represent them in the federal government, and any lawyer who allowed to represent an indigenous person was fined (Clark, 2019). These and other complications continue and worsen, especially the several unproductive attempts to review some sections of the constitutions that disproportionately affect aboriginal populations. Mainly, the experience of colonialism gives an overarching historical and conceptual link to the present experiences of indigenous people. This means that the effects of colonialism play a central role in the overrepresentation of original populations in the criminal justice.
The other major cause of this problem is socio-economic marginalization. According to Clark (2019), unequal treatment and victimization of the indigenous people is also socio-economic marginalization. There are numerous examples of the marginalization of indigenous people in Canada. For example, in 2015, the total non-indigenous Canadians had an average income of $46,449 while indigenous people was $36,748 (Clark, 2019). Similarly, the employment rate was significantly lower among indigenous people than non-indigenous people. Other unacceptable living and social conditions that indigenous people face also compound the problem of relatively high employment and low income. This is mainly for the communities living in isolated and remote areas. For example, most indigenous people live in highly substandard housing, and their education and health are seriously substandard. These socio-economic conditions, including poverty, restrict the life chances and opportunities of the aboriginals, making them susceptible to being involved with the justice system. Once involved in the justice system, this marginalization affects indigenous populations. Clark (2019) also claims that indigenous people still present more needs than non-indigenous communities regarding health, housing, employment, and education. The same factors are also used in correctional and sentencing plans risk assessment. As such, indigenous populations charged with a crime are more likely to be identified as high risk.
Moreover, racism, general discrimination, and over-policing of the native groups play a part in the overrepresentation of aboriginals in the criminal justice (Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks, 2019). For example, law enforcement officers tend to be more informal to non-indigenous people, but they respond formally to indigenous people, especially the youths. This is mainly due to the prejudices leveled against First people from marginalized backgrounds. Also, the police tend to be inseparable from white domination and white culture (Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks, 2019). As a result, indigenous people always expect trouble from law enforcement officers. Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks (2019) also add that similar prejudices are clear according to formal charging in court as opposed to extrajudicial sanctions as there might not be suitable community-based programs, particularly for indigenous groups. The requirement for surety at bail is a huge obstacle for indigenous youth, especially because the enduring impact of colonialism has devastated their families and communities. Another obstacle is the lack of parental presence since it facilitates bail success.
Rudin (2016) explores the criminal justice system’s relationship with the aboriginals, especially in Ontario. His article claims that understanding this relationship is vital in explaining responses and attitudes to occurrences like the Ipperwash Park occupation (Rudin, 2016). An important aspect relating to the overrepresentation of native populations in the criminal justice system emerges. This is under-policing and over-policing. Over-policing is when law enforcement officers target people from a specific racial or ethnic background living in certain neighborhoods. Apart from causing a serious distrust of the indigenous people to the police, over-policing has also made police officers view aboriginal people as dangerous, susceptible to offenses, and violent (Rudin, 2016). On the other hand, indigenous people are also overrepresented in criminal justice as victims of criminal behavior. This is called under-policing. Police officers view aboriginals as less worthy victims of the crimes, thus downplaying or ignoring their requests for assistance. The government also mirrors the same attitude by regularly downplaying the rights of the aboriginal people and ignoring their enduring grievances (Rudin, 2016). Over- and under-policing are two sides of one coin. One side fosters distrust of police while the other one significantly affects the attitudes of the indigenous people towards the police.’
In Canada’s criminal justice system, Indigenous/aboriginal people are overrepresented as both victims and convicted/accused criminals. This analysis shows a relatively high number of indigenous inmates in correctional facilities all over the country compared to the non-indigenous population. Three major factors contribute to this inequality; socio-economic status, culture clash/systemic discrimination/racism, and colonialism. Several interventions have been proposed to fight this problem, including establishing a strategy for reversing discrimination and the entrenched impacts of colonialism.
Various recommendations have been made to reduce the overrepresentation of native people in Canada’s criminal justice system. For example, the DoJ Canada (2021) claims that progressing resolution first requires handling the systemic racism present in Canada’s justice system. These goals can best be achieved if everyone understands the lived experiences of the aboriginals coming into contact with the law enforcement system. Also, Cesaroni, Grol & Fredericks (2019) argues for developing youth-centric programming for young people from indigenous communities. Such programming should involve youths as participants, leaders, and developers with their own input. Nevertheless, the indigenous youths will be more likely to participate in initiatives and programming if the programs are centered on participatory learning and entrenched in tradition, ceremony, history, and culture. Clark (2019) calls for a comprehensive strategy for addressing the enduring problem of socio-economic banishment, colonialism, and racism/systemic discernment. The lack of such plan is possibly the most critical strategy failing regarding the overrepresentation of aboriginals in Canada’s criminal justice system. Positive policies should be accompanied by sufficient resources, including open and in-depth consultations with the indigenous people and organizations. However, their recommendations may not work quickly because the problem has developed over so many years, and they are earnest. However, the Canadian government should prioritize reversing the discrimination and marginalization of indigenous communities.
Cesaroni, C., Grol, C., & Fredericks, K. (2019). Overrepresentation of indigenous youth in Canada’s Criminal Justice System: perspectives of indigenous young people. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 52(1), 111-128.
Clark, S. (2019). Overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the Canadian criminal justice system: Causes and responses. Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada.
Department of Justice Canada. (2021, June). New funding for projects to address overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in criminal justice system.
Rudin, J. (2016). Aboriginal peoples and the criminal justice system.