Aboriginal programs help keep youth out of jail

Aboriginal youth still make up a disproportionate number of the young people in custody in Ontario, but those number are in decline, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth.

Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services promotes cultural connections

Aboriginal youth still make up a disproportionate number of the young people in custody in Ontario, but those number are in decline, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth.

Aboriginal youth make up about 9.3 per cent of the youth population in custody, the ministry said, compared to about four per cent of the general population.

The ministry has been responsible for youth justice in the province since 2004.

"There's still a significant over-representation within the custody population," said assistant deputy minister JoAnne Miller-Reid. "It is one of our foundational beliefs that the healing path for Aboriginal youth requires a respect for their culture."

To that end, the ministry funds several programs to connect young First Nations people with their traditions.

Elder Esther Lachinette-Diabo, who works out of a special cultural room at the Justice Ronald Lester Youth Center in Thunder Bay, said many of the young people she works with have no understanding of their own identity or spirituality.

Lachinette-Diabo helps them learn cultural practices such as purifying with traditional medicines.

"A lot of them commented that when they smudge or purify themselves, that they're taking the negative energy that's within their whole being and they're grounding their feet to be able to walk in this world that is so full of hurt and turmoil for some of them," she said.

"That smudge or purification helps them understand there's a better way of life other than the one that they're living."

A 17-year-old young offender, who cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, told CBC News he grew up in foster homes, not even knowing he was Cree.

But with the Elders' help, that's changing.

"I feel comfortable in this room," the teen said, taking a chair in a circle by the drum. "You can talk about things in here that you can't talk about out there."

He said Lachinette-Diabo has taught him about the medicine wheel and about the clan system, but most importantly he said he has learned "to forgive others, to let things go, don't dwell in the past."

'I'm gangsta'

The lifestyle that leads Aboriginal teens into conflict with the law is often cut off from their own families and heritage, according to Sean Tresierra.

"[I ask] the young people [in custody] ... 'where are you from?' ... They'll say 'I'm gangsta'," Tresierra said.

He co-ordinates the Remote Aboriginal Intervention Program, also funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, to help keep First Nations young people out of custody.

"So part of our role is to work with probation (officers) in the communities to reach out a hand to the youth," Tresierra said. "That's our responsibility, to reach out a hand. It's not always easy for them to ask for help, so that's our job."

John Ray Mequanawap does the job in Eabametoong First Nation. "We have to show [youth] the ceremonies," Mequanawab said of his work.

"If we don't show them, if we show them wars, if we show them hate, that's what they'll pass on to the next generations. But if we show them all the things that we value today ... then I think it will continue on."

Miller-Reid said the Ministry is noticing the recidivism among youth is "dropping year over year" although the statistics aren't broken down by race, so there's no way of determining whether Aboriginal teens are more or less likely to re-offend.

However, overall, the number of youth in custody is down significantly since the Ministry took responsibility and Miller-Reid says all the money saved from keeping teens out of jail is being re-invested in community based programs.