A renewed focus on broader cultural education that confronts rather than ignores Canada's "colonial history" could help steer Indigenous youth away from the criminal justice system, according to a new report by Crime Prevention Ottawa.

The report, titled Culture as Catalyst: Preventing the Criminalization of Indigenous Youth, was released during a presentation at Ottawa City Hall Tuesday morning.

marc maracle ottawa cpo indigenous report

Marc Maracle is the chair of the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition, which helped lay the groundwork and provide background information for the report. (Roger Dubois/CBC)

According to the report, traumatic events stemming from "colonizing policies" such as the residential school system contribute to the disproportionately high rates of poverty, poor education and unsafe housing experienced by Indigenous people in Canada.

As a result, the paper concludes, Indigenous youth and adults are highly over-represented in the Canadian criminal justice system. 

"The research also shows that a connection to culture is very important for all young people, but that for Indigenous people in particular that connection to culture is directly linked to their sense of identity," said Melanie Bania, the report's author. 

Acknowledging impact of 'colonial history'

Programs that incorporate Indigenous practices of collaborative decision-making and focus on the individual's thoughts and feelings as opposed to jumping straight to problem solving can help youth develop the skills needed for self-determination, the report found.

'We're recommending that we really take a step back and look at the impacts of our colonial history and some of the ramifications of that that are still long-lasting.' - Melanie Bania, author

Indigenous youth in Ottawa have access to support and cultural education programs, but could benefit from wider recognition of the effects of policies designed to assimilate cultures, Bania said.

"We're recommending that we really take a step back and look at the impacts of our colonial history and some of the ramifications of that that are still long-lasting."

Bania says her research aims to help Ottawa service providers support Indigenous youth through programs that encourage cultural education. 

In addition to understanding differences in culture and maintaining sensitivity toward those differences, the report found that engaging in self-reflection can contribute to a greater feeling of cultural safety within the wider community.

"If we're going to make a difference it's never one big answer, it's a million little things, and this is one of those million little things that will make a difference," said Marc Maracle, chair of the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition, which helped lay the groundwork for the report.