Aboriginal street youth in Vancouver are 1.4 times more likely to be jailed than their non-aboriginal counterparts, according to a study released Wednesday by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
The report, conducted by the centre's Urban Health Research Initiative, said one explanation for the higher numbers could be that police may target aboriginal youth, but more research is needed.
"Given what we know about the destructive impacts of the imprisonment of youth, in the context of this study, preventing aboriginal youth from becoming incarcerated is crucial," said Dr. Kora DeBeck, the report's senior author and a research scientist and professor at Simon Fraser University.
The report was published in the journal Public Health.
"It appears from our study, addressing institutional discrimination may be a critical piece of the puzzle," DeBeck said in a statement.
But Vancouver Police were skeptical of the report's findings. Const. Brian Montague said the researchers did not not consult police or ask for input.
"There was zero consultation with the VPD regarding our outreach and youth-at-risk programs," Montague said in an email to the CBC.
Police deny targeting aboriginal youth
"I will say that the VPD do not target aboriginal youth," the email added. "We target criminal behaviour to reduce violence and increase public safety, regardless of a person's ethnicity, cultural background or gender."
He added: "The incarceration of youth is a concern for the VPD. We will continue to work with at-risk youth in a variety of outreach programs.
The study looked at 1,050 youth, aged 14 to 26, over an eight-year period between September 2005 and May 2013. About one quarter, or 248 youths, were identified as Aboriginal.
Forty-four per cent of aboriginal participants reported being incarcerated for a period of time over the study's eight-year period compared to 34 per cent of non aboriginal participants, DeBeck said.
Researchers took into account drug use, homelessness and other factors that might place youth at greater risk of imprisonment, but still found that aboriginal street youth were 1.4 times more likely to end up incarcerated.
Researchers say the report is the first to show that street aboriginal youth in Vancouver are significantly more likely to be imprisoned than their non-aboriginal peers. Past studies have explored risk factors involving the adult aboriginal population, but less is known about youth.
Aboriginal peoples make up four per cent of Canada's population, but a quarter of all inmates in federal and provincial correctional facilities are aboriginal.