Statistics Canada report shows Indigenous offenders continue to fill Sask. jails and prisons

A Statistics Canada report reveals that Indigenous offenders are overrepresented in Saskatchewan jails and prisons.

9 out of 10 male admissions to detention centres were Indigenous in 2016-17

Indigenous men, women and youth continue to be overrepresentated in Saskatchewan jail and prison populations. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Robert Henry says that if there was a simple solution, it would have been applied years ago.

But Henry says there is no simple fix to the issue of how many Indigenous men, women and youth are in Saskatchewan jails and prisons.

"It's going to take a collective movement for individuals from multiple perspectives to actually try and address these issues that are really going on," said Henry, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary sociology department. He worked extensively with gangs and youth in Saskatoon before taking the teaching position.

Robert Henry is a Métis scholar from the University of Calgary. (Brock University)

The Statistics Canada numbers compared incarceration rates in 2016-17 with a decade earlier.

Not only are the vast majority of youth offenders in custody in Saskatchewan Indigenous, but the tendency has become more pronounced over a decade, the report said.

In 2006-07, 70 per cent of male youth admissions to custody (in Saskatchewan) were Indigenous, but by 2016-17 it was 92 per cent. That's the highest rate of all provinces.

Systemic change needed

Henry echoes the views of other experts, ranging from Saskatoon's former police chief Clive Weighill to Vice-Chief Heather Bear of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, who all say broad, systemic change is needed.

Bear said it's important to see the system through the lens of an Indigenous person — what "they are dealing with and why they give up in some cases."  She pointed to unconscious bias. 

"We have to admit that systemic racism? That's a reality — and more of a reality when you live it... we need to look at that systemic racism," Bear said. 

"When you look at a system that's broken, our people don't trust the system."

Experts say systemic change is needed to address poverty, housing, education and addictions.

Jail alternatives 

But Henry also says work is needed in the justice system when it comes to sentencing.

He advocates the preparation of Gladue reports for offenders. These reports take into account an Indigenous offender's background and the forces that led them to court.

It's also a key tool for the courts when crafting sentences for offenders that may not include jail time.

The catch is that these reports can be expensive, time-consuming to prepare and there is a small pool of people qualified to prepare them.

Henry also urges the courts to consider alternatives to jail whenever possible.

"For non-violent offenders, or individuals who are committing crimes in order to sustain their family, I think we have to look at, a better question is why do they have to resort to this crime," Henry said.