Overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in B.C. corrections system rising, says Statistics Canada report

The overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in jails and youth detention in B.C. is increasing, according to the latest Statistics Canada report on adult and youth corrections.

Proportion of Indigenous girls involved in the justice system has nearly doubled since 2006/2007

Barbed wire lines the fences surrounding the Mission Medium Security Institution in British Columbia. The overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the justice system has increased across all age groups and genders in B.C., compared to figures from 2006/2007. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the correctional system in B.C. is increasing, according to the latest Statistics Canada report on adult and youth corrections.

The report, comparing last year's figures to a decade ago, shows that the proportion of Indigenous Peoples in the correctional system has gone up in all categories: male, female, adult and youth.

Indigenous girls have seen the most dramatic rise in overrepresentation. In 2006/2007 they accounted for 32 per cent of  female youth in custody in B.C. Last year, they made up 60 per cent of female youth in custody.

For males, 44 per cent of the youth in custody in B.C. last year were Indigenous.

Indigenous Peoples make up five per cent of British Columbia's overall population.

These figures come as no surprise to people like Sue Brown, a board member for the organization Justice for Girls and an advocate working at Prisoners' Legal Services.

"We've known for a long time now that the rates of Indigenous young women and adult women has been the most sustained growing population of people who are sentenced to incarceration in Canada," she said.

"This is indicative of the failure of the B.C. justice system to adequately address the reasons that Indigenous girls are coming into custody and to adequately keep them out of custody."

Overall, the number of youth serving in-custody sentences has been decreasing across the country. More than three-quarters of the youth in the justice system are male.

B.C. operates two youth custody centres in Burnaby and Prince George. (GP Mendoza)

Brown said B.C. is doing particularly well in reducing the number of youth in the justice system. According to the Statistics Canada report, the province has the lowest youth incarceration rate in the country.

But when looking at how the proportion of Indigenous youth in the justice system continues to rise, Brown says it's clear there is a systemic problem.

She said when it comes to Indigenous girls, they are especially vulnerable.

Overpoliced and underprotected

Indigenous groups, advocates and academics have long said that Indigenous women and girls are overpoliced and underprotected. They've also pointed this out as one of the root causes of the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

Brown said in addition to a problematic relationship with police, poverty, lack of housing, systemic racism, the education system and the child welfare system all play a role.

In her view, complete decarceration is what's needed and the political will and resources to get people the supports they need, when they need them.

Sue Brown has a Master of Arts in criminology and is currently attending law school at the University of British Columbia. She currently works at Prisoners' Legal Services and serves on the board for Justice for Girls. (Submitted)

"We know what types of support they need," she said.

"Address these systemic issues that are underpinning their criminalization in the first place so we can create healthy communities and foster their ability to heal from intergenerational trauma and to move forward in a healthy way in their communities."

The overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples incarcerated across the country has been raised as a concern by people like Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, and Sen. Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Among the calls to action in the commission's final report were explicit calls to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth and adults in custody over the next decade.

In responding to news this week about the continued overrepresentation, particularly the statistic about the continued overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the justice system, Sinclair posted on Twitter, "This is not going to get better soon and it has serious implications for the future."

Attorney General says B.C. is taking 'long overdue steps'

In an emailed response to CBC about the report, B.C. Attorney General David Eby said the provincial government is committed to making changes in the justice system, in partnership with the B.C. Aboriginal Justice Council and Indigenous communities.

"We are developing a strategy to improve how Indigenous people interact with and are treated in the justice system," he wrote.

"This includes setting targets and taking action to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system." 

He pointed out some of the changes already made by the NDP government, like committing to double the number of Gladue Reports produced for Indigenous offenders.

"I am confident that with the budget commitments we have made, we are taking long overdue steps to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system, by improving First Nations legal services, dispute resolution services for families and poverty law services to increase access to justice," he stated.