Indigenous youth need to be at home and in the community, not in jail

Ryan Beardy, who was sent to a youth detention centre at 13, says youth who are separated from their families and communities end up forging bonds instead with fellow inmates and gangs.

Incarcerating youth only creates more problems, says Ryan Beardy

Ryan Beardy is Cree/Saulteaux from Lake St. Martin First Nation and has significant experience in the criminal justice system. (Jonathan Ventura/CBC)

Indigenous youth make up eight per cent of the youth population in Canada, yet accounted for 46 per cent of youth in custody in 2016-2017, according to data released by Statistics Canada.

Let that sink in. That's almost half of all youth in custody being Indigenous, meanwhile making up less than one-tenth of the youth population.

I remember my first stint in the Manitoba Youth Centre. I walked in and probably more like 80 per cent of all the faces staring at me through those little windows were brown. It had become normalized to me, my people taking up most of the cells. We went to jail.

That was 20 years ago. Sadly these trends still continue today.

Incarcerating our youth only creates more problems. This trend is eerily similar to residential schools, where the child was ripped from their family. We can't expect our families, which are the foundation of our communities, to heal through their past traumas and adversities at the same time that their youth are consistently and disproportionately taken from their homes, thus creating more trauma.

Problems in the justice system

There are the obvious factors at play here: colonialism, inter-generational trauma, social problems and of course poverty. But in my experience, there are some deeper-rooted problems that may be leading to the disproportionate number of Indigenous youth in jail.

There's definitely underlying factors within our justice system that lead to disproportionate sentences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders.

I talked with many fellow inmates during my time in Manitoba correctional facilities and there was always a common theme — if you were Indigenous, you're getting more time. I'll be careful not to blame racism in particular, but discrimination plays a factor in so much of our daily lives already. If you're Indigenous yourself, I'm sure you have your own stories about racist and discriminating undertones within society.

Alternatives to jail

I discussed this with my lawyer during my own sentencing. He told me he saw the same thing, that his Indigenous clients were being handed harsher sentences than a non-Indigenous offender with the same charges.

Canada needs to create more options in regards to restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration for young Indigenous offenders. I recall my first couple of charges were joyriding, then theft under $5,000. I was given an option at 13 — I was to meet with an officer and write a letter of apology.

I missed my appointment and a warrant was issued for my arrest. I was surprised that I wasn't given more chances. I was thrown in the youth centre after that and incarceration just became normalized.

The Manitoba Law Courts building in Winnipeg. (Ryan Cheale/CBC)

Youth want to belong; they want a sense of family and acceptance. This is also what contributes to incarceration rates. Youth that have no family or feel a disconnect from their family, or society even, are at greater risk to join gangs and stay involved in a criminal lifestyle. They feel accepted within gangs and negative circles, and feel welcomed when returning to jail and their allotted ranges.

Incubators for gang culture

Youth need to be at home and in the community, not in a detention centre. I learned from my fellow youth inmates back then. We exchanged war stories and tips and tricks. We spread our gang culture within those incubators. I gravitated toward what I viewed to be family at the time. As more youth joined those gangs, the easier it became to stay in.

Incarcerating our youth is not the answer.

We need to invest in more forms of restorative justice.

Judges need to give more consideration to young Indigenous offenders and their circumstances.

People need to be aware of the statistics and do what's necessary to keep our youth within their family structures and in the community, when possible.

Our traditional communities were built on family and protecting the youth within our circles. We need to fix these systems that are taking our youth away.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ


Ryan Beardy is Cree/Saulteaux from Lake St. Martin First Nation. He has significant experience in the criminal justice system. He now co-parents his two children and is in his second year at the University of Winnipeg studying Political Science and Conflict Resolution.