Black Youth and the Criminal Justice System: Summary Report of an Engagement Process in Canada

Background and Context

The Black population in Canada is diverse; it includes communities that have existed for generations across the country, as well as more recent immigrant groups who are diverse in terms of ethnicities, languages, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, and countries of origin. Despite these differences, a common feature of the Black experience in Canada is anti-Black racism–across time, regions, institutions, and various areas of social life. This is not to say that every Black person in Canada experiences racism in the same way, and all the time. Rather structural, systemic, institutional, and individual forms of racism are present in this country and have a negative impact on the collective Black experience, and by extension, on Canadian society as a whole. This is evidenced through the different outcomes experienced by Black people in comparison to most other Canadians: decreased opportunities for educational success, reduced employment options and career advancement opportunities, increased rates of poverty and unemployment, and elevated levels of contact with the CJS (DasGupta et al., 2020; Owusu-Bempah et al., 2021).

Anti-Black racism is rooted in Canada’s history–in its experiences with colonialism, slavery, segregation, and restrictive immigration practices. Slavery was practiced for more than 200 years in the colonies that would become Canada, and the oppressed status of Black people persisted long after slavery was abolished (Maynard, 2017). For example, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, rationalized keeping the death penalty based on the supposed danger that Black men posed to White women (Walker, 2010). Similarly, in 1911, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier signed an Order in Council prohibiting Black immigration on the basis that Black people were deemed unfit for the “climate and requirements” of Canada (Shepard, 1997). As successive Canadian governments sought to restrict Black immigration, the small population of Black people already in the country experienced discrimination, including segregation (both legal and in practice) in education, employment, and housing (Henry & Tator, 2010). This history set the stage for the experiences of subsequent generations of Black Canadians, and more recent Black newcomers, by laying the foundations of anti-Black racism that persists to this day (Owusu-Bempah & Gabbidon, 2020).

Numerous taskforces and a growing body of research have shed light on the presence of anti-Black racism in Canada (Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, 1995; James, 2010; Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2018; Canadian Heritage, 2019a; Nova Scotia, 2019; Wortley, 2019). This body of evidence shows that Black people fare poorly in key areas relevant to criminal justice, including child welfare, education and employment. As a result of structural inequities, for example, Black children are overrepresented in child welfare cases (Borden Colley, 2019; Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2016). Because contact with child welfare systems increases the likelihood of criminal justice contact later in life, Black children are disproportionately affected by the association between the child welfare and criminal justice systems (Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000; Owusu-Bempah, 2010).

Similarly, the relationship between poor educational outcomes and criminal justice contact is well established (Groot & van den Brink, 2010; Lochner & Morett, 2004). Research suggests that Black students in Canada also face multiple challenges within school systems that are ill equipped to meet their educational, emotional and developmental needs. Black students are more likely to be inappropriately streamed into non-university-track programs, to be subjected to unjust disciplinary practices, and to drop (or be pushed) out of school (Collins & Magnan, 2018; James, 2012; James & Turner, 2017; George, 2020). This is reflective of the phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline, whereby institutionally driven academic underperformance, absence from school, and failure to graduate all increase the likelihood of criminal justice contact for Black youth (Maynard, 2017).

Educational barriers combined with structural and institutional forms of discrimination produce inequalities in Canada’s employment sector for Black people. Data from Canada’s 2016 Census show that unemployment rates for Black people were approximately twice those for the rest of the population (Do, 2020). This gap remained even when considering levels of education; among those with a postsecondary education, the unemployment rate for the Black population was much higher than that of the rest of the Canadian population (9.2% and 5.3%, respectively) (Do, 2020). Black people seeking jobs are disproportionately excluded from the labour market in part due to discrimination by employers (Henry & Ginzberg, 1985; Douthwright, 2017). Black people who are employed earn less than their peers, often due to systemic discrimination resulting in them occupying entry-level positions with limited room for career development. Census data for Canada show that in 2015, the median income for Black women was $35,663 compared with $39,654 for other women in the country. Similarly, the median income for Black men in Canada in 2015 was $41,146, compared with $55,801 for other men in the country (Do, 2020). These income disparities were consistent across major Canadian cities (Do, 2020).

Lower employment rates and incomes have resulted in greater poverty among the Black population in Canada. In 2016, Black people aged 25 to 59 were twice as likely to live in a low-income situation compared with the rest of the Canadian population in that age group (Do, 2020). Often times, poverty is geographically concentrated, meaning that Black people are overrepresented in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods are underserved by transit, libraries, schools, hospitals and other important services (Hulchanski, 2010; Walks & Borne, 2006). These are the very services that create strong communities and protect young people from resorting to crime, gang membership and violence (McMurtry & Curling 2008, p. 31). In the absence of these important social resources and in the face of increased poverty, crime and victimization rates remain high in these neighbourhoods. This results in more concentrated, enforcement-oriented styles of policing that further increase contact with the CJS (Hulchanski, 2010; Meng, 2017).

This brief account of the historical and contemporary experiences of Black people in Canada demonstrates that Black people continue to face inequities across a various social institutions. This, in turn, increases their level of contact with the CJS. Findings from the engagement process summarized in this report must be understood considering the historical and contemporary experiences of Black people in Canada.