KARA has been reporting and speaking on critical issues impacting abused and neglected children for many years.
this article submitted by long time KARA writer & researcher Eshanee Singh
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Almost half of Canada’s youth correctional services is made up of Indigenous youth, but they represent less than 10% of the general population. Self-harming behaviors and incidents of suicide has led to suicide rates among Indigenous youth to be 11 times than that of the national average and the highest in the world.
The overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in the Canadian criminal justice system is illustrative of two things: one, it is evidence of the government’s failure to adhere to both its domestic and international commitments, and two, it suggests that the disproportionality between their representation in the greater population versus the justice system is discrimination rather than coincidence.
The intergenerational trauma experienced because of residential schools and the lack of funding for programs to address underlying issues; mental health, lack of education, and poverty, combine to create the perfect storm increasing the number of Indigenous children in the Canadian criminal justice system.
In the domestic sphere the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (“TRC”) was created to inquire into the history and the impact of residential schools on Indigenous peoples. In 2015 the TRC issued 94 calls to action for all levels of government to implement, some of which concerns the welfare of children.
The 38th call to action asks all levels of government to “commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in custody over the next decade.” While there was a 12% decrease of youth in custody for the 2016/2017 reporting period from the previous year, in 2016/2017 Indigenous youth accounted for 46% of admissions to correctional services while representing only 8% of the Canadian youth population. The Correctional Services of Canada found that Indigenous offenders who participated in correctional programs, compared to Indigenous offenders who did not, were 1.45 times likelier for a decrease in recidivism; however, Indigenous offenders as compared to Caucasian, Black, and Other offenders, were found to have the highest rates of recidivism.
Canada has made strides in its international commitments as a signatory to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (“Convention”) through the creation of, for example, the Youth Criminal Justice Act 2002; however, the level of representation of Indigenous youth in the criminal justice systems proves otherwise. For Indigenous youth to hold such a disproportionate number has to say something about the Canadian government’s level of commitment to the TRC’s call to action. It suggests that Canada has failed to ensure the fair treatment in the justice system that respects the rights of Indigenous youth as per article 40 of the Convention.
Continuous and consistent overrepresentation from such a young age in a negative light will contribute to discouragement and a loss of hope; it sends a message that the government and society does not care for Indigenous youth as much as it does others. This is a dangerous message when suicide rates are already so high among Indigenous youths.
Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”) which was enacted to ensure formal equality, where everyone is treated the same and certain rights and freedoms are guaranteed.
The values enshrined in the Charter and the idea of equality are not reflected when Indigenous youth are disproportionally overrepresented in correctional services.
Overrepresentation does not do anything to aid reconciliation and is not a step to repair the damage done by Canada’s colonial history, rather it further entrenches the systemic violence Indigenous communities face.
No matter race or culture, a child is a child and every child is deserving of equal and equitable protection. As non-Indigenous actors we cannot pretend to know the solution, meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities is needed to understand culture and appropriate action.