Cover produced
from a design entered by
a young offender
in a logo contest held in 1998 marking
the "100th anniversary of conditional release in Canada"

Aboriginal Peoples and the Criminal Justice System
A special issue of the
Ottawa, May 15, 2000

Canadian Criminal Justice Association

The policies, positions and observations developed within this paper will serve as a catalyst for further discussion with Aboriginal peoples, non-governmental organizations, the judiciary, law enforcement and correctional agencies, and governmental departments, at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels.

The Report examines the historical legacy of assimilation. Aboriginal people in Canada today are facing many problems that can be traced back to the impact of European assimilation. The European capitalist system differed greatly from the customs of Aboriginal people and, when imposed upon them, altered their way of life economically, politically, and socially. The collapse of the fur trade further changed the lifestyle of the Aboriginal people by increasing their dependence on European economies.

Loss of the traditional Aboriginal way of life went beyond simple economic factors. Health problems, the pressures of foreign cultures and religions, and the introduction of new technologies also led to the demise of Aboriginal habitat and lifestyle. In addition, residential schools, which prohibited the use of First Nations languages and observance of Aboriginal culture and tradition, imposed neglect, abuse and mistreatment upon many Aboriginal children. These historical factors, as well as present socio-economic conditions, have contributed greatly to disproportionate levels of Aboriginal incarceration, poverty, unemployment, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence, and to the absence of stable business infrastructures.  Indeed, the behaviour of most Aboriginal offenders frequently reflect social rather than criminal problems.

The demographics described help to illustrate the difficulties confronting Aboriginal peoples today. Although the life expectancy of Aboriginal people is on the rise, it is still approximately 6.5 years lower than for non-Aboriginals. Aboriginal people represent approximately 3% of the Canadian population but they now make up approximately 16% of Canada's federal offender population. The number of incarcerated Aboriginal inmates in federal and provincial facilities, particularly in the Prairies, is still increasing though many of the crimes committed are minor offences.

Various difficulties confronting Aboriginal people within the Canadian judicial system have been addressed over the past twenty years but, unfortunately, many problems still exist. High levels of Aboriginal incarceration, one of the most serious problems, is aggravated by inadequate government funding and limited rehabilitation options and resources, and the overall justice system still does not address the cultural needs of Aboriginal peoples.

For the majority of people within Canada, research points to an increasing connection between socio-economic disadvantage and involvement in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal communities are faced with numerous social and economic disadvantages, resulting in a correlation with high levels of Aboriginal incarceration. Poverty and reliance on social assistance are prevalent in Aboriginal communities where approximately half of the children live in poverty. In addition, almost one -third of all Aboriginal people over 15 years of age relied on social assistance for at least part of 1990. Disenchantment with formal education, largely due to negative experiences at residential schools, different learning styles and the need, in many areas, to go off-reserve and away from family support in order to attend high school, have resulted in lower educational levels among Aboriginal people.

Unemployment within First Nations communities is 10-20% higher than that found in the non-Aboriginal population of Canada. Poor living conditions are also common in communities where overcrowding, inferior construction of houses, the lack of clean water and safe waste disposal exists. Community development has been restricted by the difficulty First Nations people encounter in raising the capital required to establish business ventures. Consequently, First Nations communities have not been able to develop the business infrastructures necessary to accommodate their purchasing needs, and as a result money is not re-invested into their communities.

High rates of alcohol abuse are also found in Aboriginal communities, where one in five people are admitted to hospital for an alcohol-related illness on an annual basis. Domestic violence is also common as 80% of Aboriginal women have stated that they have experienced some form of physical abuse at some point in their lives.

There are different federal, provincial, and territorial approaches aimed at reducing the rate of Aboriginal incarceration, each attempting to make the justice system more responsive and culturally sensitive to their needs. These include expanded Aboriginal policy and program initiatives within the judicial system, cross-cultural education for those involved in the justice system, and the use of diversion, alternative measures such as sentencing circles and community justice committees and healing lodges. The implementation of these approaches reflects a growing understanding that Aboriginal offenders have unique needs and require alternative programs.

Although steps are being taken to attempt to resolve the problems that exist between Aboriginal people and the judicial system, the resolution of many Aboriginal struggles with the judiciary might result from returning the mechanisms of control back to their communities.  Aboriginal self-government is an attempt by Aboriginal peoples to regain the authority necessary to determine their own fate. Self-government initiatives would recognize First Nations people as distinct nations and could provide the authority for Aboriginal communities to determine and control their culture, language, educational, health and judicial processes.

Back to the Canadian Criminal Justice Association
Next Page