Indigenous incarceration rates: Why are Canada's numbers so high and what can be done about it?

CBC’s Lenard Monkman sat down with panellists Ryan Beardy, Pam Palmater and Cora Morgan to discuss risk factors and justice system reforms.

Lenard Monkman and panellists discuss risk factors and justice system reforms

CBC Indigenous host Lenard Monkman sat down with a group of experts to talk about the disproportionate rate of Indigenous people who are incarcerated. (Jonathan Ventura/CBC)

Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada's criminal justice system, but what is causing the numbers to be so high?

CBC's Lenard Monkman sat down Friday with panellists Ryan Beardy, Pam Palmater and Cora Morgan to talk about the reasons why, and what can be done about it.

Beardy was 13 when he moved from Lake St. Martin First Nation to his aunt's house in Winnipeg's North End. Not long after that, he was facing his first criminal charges: joyriding and theft Under $5,000.

"Jail is normalized," said Beardy, on his childhood.

After spending years in and out of the criminal justice system, he is now in his 30s and is one month away from finishing parole after serving a sentence at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. 

"We're taking the youth from the families and we're expecting the youth to not have these traumatic experiences and not have that affect their lives," said Beardy. "It did with me."

Statistics Canada released data this week that shows Indigenous youth made up 46 per cent of admissions to youth correctional services in Canada in 2016-17, while accounting for eight per cent of the youth population.

Cora Morgan worked in the area of justice for nine years. She is the former executive director of Onashewewin, a restorative justice agency.

"We were tired of seeing all of the children and youth coming through the doors of Onashewewin," said Morgan.

"There was a huge gap for people who were released [from jail]. They would go into the prisons or jails, go to ceremonies, and then when they were released, there were no resources or someone trying to help them follow their dreams."

Cultural programs in corrections

Beardy said his family's history at residential schools took away his culture, so he found cultural programs in jail beneficial.

"When I took a good hard look at my values and belief systems and realized how wrong and off I was… the culture really helped me," he said.

"Just having that as an option was huge."

Palmater agreed having culture and ceremonies available for Indigenous inmates is important, but added a strong caution that it's not a solution to the incarceration rate.

"I think for the people that are there currently, that's something that's needed," said Palmater.

"However, the solution is not indigenizing prisons. The solution is our people not going to prison to begin with. The solution is alternatives to prison for the vast majority of offences."

For more, watch the full panel discussion.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.