Cracks in the criminal justice system & the road of reconciliation

by Charity Nonkes

The road of reconciliation with Indigenous people has many potholes, as the lives of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls can attest to. Indigenous peoples have rallied for justice, but cracks in the criminal justice system were created by a colonial system to keep this from happening. These cracks serve as syphons to the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system as victims and offenders. This overrepresentation should force us to recognize the long road of reconciliation we need to journey down and ask ourselves why we don’t experience this same reality.

Throughout Canada’s history, violence and assimilation have been used to eliminate Indigenous peoples and criminalize their ways of life. This oppression has created an environment that has led to extremely high rates of victimization of crime and incarceration. As of 2014/2015 Indigenous adults made up only 3% of the adult population in Canada, but they accounted for 25% of all homicide victims and 25% of those in federal correctional facilities[i]. This reality is magnified particularly for Indigenous women and youth. Inuit women experience the most violence in Canada at a rate 14 times more than the national average.

Similarly, Indigenous women were three times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Indigenous females[ii]. The trend of overrepresentation extends to incarceration rates of Indigenous youth. Indigenous young people made up only 8% of the total youth population in 2016/2017, but accounted for 46% of admissions into youth correctional services[iii]. Indigenous peoples are jailed longer, granted parole less often, accused of offences at higher rates, and categorized as higher risk offenders more than non-Indigenous people[iv].

To learn more about the many other statistics of overrepresentation click here.

I could go on with these statistics and share how trends have worsened over the past 10 years, but what does this really matter to me? I am not connected to this, this is their own doing – right? Or at least that seems to be a statement I hear from many non-Indigenous Canadians.  The same forces, however, that have led to overrepresentation have put me into a position in life where I have choices that many people in Canada do not have. I have been privileged not to face the same reality as many marginalized people and because of that my chances of being a part of the criminal justice system are low. Indigenous peoples are not the only ones experiencing this injustice; there is also a huge overrepresentation of Black Canadians in the prison system.

When our justice system is unjust for some, it is unjust for us all – even when I benefit from the systems of inequality that exist in Canada today. The cracks in the criminal justice system shouldn’t divide people but rather serve as a reminder of collective work we must all do.

There are many factors that have created an environment where Indigenous peoples are repeatedly traumatized, disadvantaged, and oppressed, which has led to their overrepresentation within the criminal justice system. I am going to highlight the child welfare system and residential schools as leading factors, but there are many other complex factors than what I can describe here. Particularly, the over-policing of Indigenous peoples and the targeting of their communities is a major element in  overrepresentation, but will not be explained here.

Colten Bouschie
An attendee at a Calgary rally holds a sign in support of Colten Boushie’s family. Demonstrations were staged across the country after Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree murder Friday. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Like the criminal justice system, there is a vast overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission speaks to this issue, “Many of today’s Aboriginal children and youth live with the legacy of residential schools every day, as they struggle to deal with high rates of addictions, fetal alcohol disorder, mental health issues, family violence, incarceration of parents, and the intrusion of child-welfare authorities. All these factors place them at greater risk of involvement with crime[v].”

Following this statement, the TRC draws direct parallels between the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system and the criminal justice system, based on research that was conducted in British Columbia. 35.5% of youth in the child welfare system where also involved in the justice system, while only 4.4% of youth not in the child welfare system are involved in the justice system[vi]. Moreover, a study conducted in the Canadian Prairies (which have the largest overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in custody) found that approximately two-thirds of Indigenous inmates were a part of the child-welfare system.

Within the child welfare system, children are often put into non-Indigenous homes and are cut off from their communities, culture, land, and family. This system of extracting Indigenous children from their lands, communities, and families mirrors the practices in the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop[vii]. Removing Indigenous children from their communities serves as a means of assimilation and exposes children to the violence and inadequacies of the child welfare system without a support network to lean into. This along with various other legacies of the residential school system continually exposes Indigenous children to violence and isolates them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission speaks extensively to this reality. Almost 25% of the Calls to Action focus on the justice system and the first five Calls to Action in the report directly deal with the injustice of the child welfare system.

Learn more about the Indigenous overrepresentation in the child welfare system here.

The factors that have caused the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice and child welfare system stems from systemic racism and oppression. However, throughout history and into the present, Indigenous people have resisted even when the effects of the overrepresentation bleeds into communities to create cycles of violence, poverty, and inter-generational trauma.

The failures of the criminal justice system are more than just cracks that need to be fixed. In the same way, the road of reconciliation requires more than just apologies to fill the potholes. Creating right relations with Indigenous people requires us to recognize oppression in Canada and how we benefit from the systems that were designed to serve people of European descent. Creating right relations also invites us to work in solidarity towards a society that restores rather than causes further harm.

Charity Nonkes, MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern for January to April 2019


[i] Department of Justice. (2017). Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Retrieved from

[ii] Department of Justice. (2017). Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Retrieved from

[iii] Monkman, L. (2018). Indigenous incarceration rates: why are Canada’s numbers so high and what can be done about it? CBC News.  Retrieved from

[iv] Department of Justice. (2017b). Spotlight on Gladue : challenges, experiences, and possibilities in Canada’s criminal justice system / Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice, Canada. Retrieved from

[v] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Pg. 178 Retrieved from

[vi] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Pg. 178 Retrieved from

[vii] Edwards, K. (2017). Why Indigenous children are overrepresented in Canada’s foster care system. Retrieved from

One thought

  1. As an elementary school child, I learned (subliminally) from my teachers that Canada was a perfect country. We were a kind and God-fearing nation whose values were based on moral decency in the public sphere and respect for others at all times. In fact, those were the ‘playground rules.’
    While I continue to be grateful for my Canadian citizenship, it was an unpleasant shock to learn as a much, much older person how deeply stained our history was; stained with racism, discrimination, and deliberate deceit by successive governments with respect to treatment of the aboriginal people whose land my forefathers claimed as their own.
    As I consider the ongoing mistreatment of these indigenous nations, I continue to be amazed at their spiritual resilience and their willingness to forgive. We have stolen their inheritance, robbed them of their cultural heritage, abandoned them to reservations ill-suited to their needs, and broken age-old treaties without remorse. (I consider very reluctant and tardy official government apologies to border on insincerity, though they were often graciously accepted.)
    Thank you for a well-written, though hard-to-read, article.

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