More than 80% of incarcerated Manitoba minors are Indigenous. These 3 say that can be changed

Indigenous people who spent time in Manitoba jails when they were young are opening up about their experiences, as new statistics show how heavily over-represented Indigenous young people are in the prison system.

Former young offenders say education, ending oppression are keys to changing those statistics

Steve Spence spent most of his life behind bars in Manitoba jails. His involvement in the province's justice system like many Indigenous youth started as a teen. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Standing on Selkirk Avenue in the heart of Winnipeg's North End, Steve Spence is trying to raise awareness about a program he credits with changing his life.

These days, he hands out flyers for a meet and greet for the Momentum program, which helps offenders reintegrate into the community and tackles the root causes of addiction. But not that long ago, he was roaming this street with the wrong crowd. Two years ago he was sitting in a provincial jail cell.

Spence, 40, has been involved in Manitoba's justice system since he was 15. "I made a really really bad mistake, and I paid for it. I went to jail and I was locked up and that was that." 

How The Momentum Centre helped Steve Spence change his life:

Steve Spence on the revolving door

5 years ago
Duration 0:57
Often six months at a time, Steve Spence would go on to spend most of his life behind bars in Manitoba jails.

His story is similar to that of many other Indigenous young people in the province. New numbers from Statistics Canada reveal that 81 per cent of boys incarcerated as minors are Indigenous. For girls, that rate is 82 per cent. 

Overall, in 2016 about 19.8 per cent of Winnipeg's under-14 population was Indigenous, showing how heavily over-represented Indigenous people are in the prison system.

Tanisha Laporte, 20, was one of them. She was separated from her mother when she was just six. Her mom had been sentenced to serve time in an Edmonton maximum security penitentiary. Laporte would follow her mother's path later in life and would be shuffled through the child welfare system.

At age 12, she was charged with an assault and went to jail for the first time.

"It was scary," recalls Laporte. "You're not really sure what you're going to be like, going in there. You don't know who you're going to see. You don't know where you're going to sleep."

She gives credit to a support program inside the Manitoba Youth Centre which helped give her self-confidence.

"They did a lot of cultural stuff there. [There was] smudging and there's dancing and you get to talk with people there," she said. 
Tanisha Laporte is a 20-year-old First Nations woman. She has been detained in youth correctional facilities 13 times from age 12-18. (Laura-Ashley Asham)

Laporte hasn't been involved in the criminal justice system for two years and is set to graduate next week with a high school diploma from the Louis Riel Institute.

Austin Grozelle, 23, estimates he was incarcerated as a youth 25 different times. As a young First Nations man who'd been in the Child and Family Services (CFS) system since he was five months old, he felt alone sitting in a jail cell.

"It was rough, every night [I] broke down, didn't have anybody to call."

Grozelle feels the odds have been stacked against him as a young First Nations man, and said that was the case for his seven siblings as well, all of whom have been incarcerated. But he takes full responsibility for his actions that brought him to jail.

"I pretty much made the choices. I know that I did those things and I did wrong and want to make a change because it's not going to get me anywhere except death."
Austin Grozelle, 23, estimates he was incarcerated as a youth 25 different times. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

His first interaction with police was when he was 16 years old. He was riding his bike drunk down Selkirk Avenue and got arrested. He remembers being filled with anger at his birth parents and the CFS system.

That anger led to trouble until recently. These days, he's trying to stay out of trouble and is volunteering. He hasn't been in jail in a year and sometimes works at Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre. He's taken a cardiopulmonary resuscitation course and hopes to get his driver's licence.

"I'm making goals for myself."

'Crabs in a bucket'

Spence thinks if any change is going to happen, it'll come after awareness is raised about imprisonment statistics.

"We have to get the message out here that as Indigenous people, we're oppressed. We have to understand … how we're held down … like crabs in a bucket."

How Steve Spence has come full circle on the streets where he grew up: 

Steve Spence on a life of trouble

5 years ago
Duration 0:33
Steve Spence has gone full circle and is trying to change his life around now in the same Winnipeg neighbourhood he used to get into trouble.

And he says awareness has to be raised about the opportunities that are out there for Indigenous youth so they can reach their full potential.

"We're holding a golden ticket … and that golden ticket is education, so we have to take advantage of that, we have to do it and know that we can do anything, we can be anything, we don't have to be crowding jail cells, we don't have to be crowding welfare lines, we don't have to kill each other on the street."

Minister says province taking action

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Richard Wagner recently called the disproportionate number of Indigenous people incarcerated across the country unacceptable.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Richard Wagner recently called the disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples incarcerated unacceptable. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Wagner said the court will visit Winnipeg next year to meet with appeals court judges, local lawyers and community members.

Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the provincial government is taking action on Indigenous incarceration rates.

She pointed to the government's criminal justice system modernization strategy, which she said are leading to "positive results," and claimed a 10 per cent reduction in the province's total adult custody population and a 16 per cent reduction in youth custody counts.

Incarcerated as a youth 25 times, Austin Grozelle is hoping to make a change

5 years ago
Duration 3:09
More than 80% of incarcerated Manitoba minors are Indigenous, and former young offenders say education, ending oppression are keys to changing those statistics.

More from CBC Manitoba:

About the authors:

Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country. He studied human rights in university and holds both a degree and diploma in communications.​

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of independent Indigenous media:Red Rising Magazine. He is currently employed as an associate producer for CBC Indigenous.