Edmonton lawyers offer solutions to Indigenous incarceration disparity

According to Statistics Canada, while adult aboriginal persons made up only 4.1 per cent of the Canadian adult population in 2016/17 they represented nearly 30 per cent of those incarcerated.

'Boots on the ground investment' urged for rehab, addiction and mental health services

A group of lawyers spoke to media in Indigenous Art Park Wednesday morning, demanding action to lower Indigenous incarceration rates. From left to right: Lionel Chartrand, Jordan Stuffco, Tom Engel, Bob Aloneissi, and former Legal Aid Alberta youth worker Mark Cherrington. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

Edmonton area lawyers are making a bold call to action to address disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates: they want the government to pardon non-violent offenders.

On the eve of National Indigenous Peoples Day, a group of lawyers outlined their vision Thursday to address what they call a crisis in the justice system. According to statistics from 2016/17, Aboriginal adults made up 4.1 per cent of the Canadian adult population but represented nearly 30 per cent of incarcerated adults.

"The proportion of Aboriginal admissions to adult custody has been trending upwards for over 10 years," the 2018 Statistics Canada report states. In 2006/07, the rate was 21 per cent provincially and 20 per cent federally.

Over-representation is even more pronounced for incarcerated youth, reaching almost 50 per cent overall and 60 per cent for females, who only make up eight per cent of the Canadian youth population.

"I could easily have been a statistic," said Jordan Stuffco, a Métis Albertan and incoming president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association of Alberta.

The lawyers are suggesting a multi-faceted approach that involves all levels of government; amnesty was just one of the ideas.

"We need to see some investment in the services that are basically going to make differences in the Aboriginal community," Stuffco said, citing "boots on the ground investment" for rehabilitative centres, addiction services and mental health treatment especially designed for Indigenous Canadians.

"We need to see actual practical application of what's been spoken for years and decades amongst our politicians."

Similar calls to action came Thursday from the Indigenous Bar Association and the B.C.-based West Coast Prison Justice Society. 

The government is aware of the disproportionate inmate population but the situation is created by independent courts which determine who is sent to custody, said an emailed statement on behalf of the Alberta Indigenous Relations ministry as well as the Justice and Solicitor General ministry.

In the email, spokesperson Ted Bauer also said Indigenous programming is available in provincial correctional centres.

"Providing education, cultural and spiritual programs aligns with several recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," he said.

'Treat the Roots'

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee offered general comments Thursday on the issue of Indigenous overrepresentation in criminal justice.

"I think it's the exposure to the conditions," he told reporters, saying Indigenous persons were over-represented in poverty, trauma, domestic violence, mental health and addictions.

"I think if we're really going to make a difference, we've got to treat the roots."

Allen Benson is CEO of the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, which employs court workers, works with at-risk youth and runs two healing lodges in Alberta. He urged more focus on counselling, treatment and mental health support and said Indigenous leaders also have an important role to play.

"We need to shift our thinking and stop believing we have the answers to the problem," Benson said. "Instead, trust that our relationship with Indigenous experts can actually help deal with the issue by engaging them in their expertise and knowledge."