Overrepresentation of Indigenous People in the Canadian Criminal Justice System: Causes and Responses


Indigenous criminal justice policy in Canada continues to face major challenges. Rates of overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the system are still extremely high and getting worse, and systemic discrimination is an ongoing reality. Yet we have seen improvements. The legislated amendments to the Criminal Code, in recognizing how unequal life chances contribute to offending and victimization among Indigenous people, as well as recognizing the value of sentencing alternatives, were significant advances in federal policy. Similarly, the expanded recognition of the same realities by the Supreme Court of Canada in Gladue and Ipeelee was a major step forward. The fact that the sentencing amendments and Gladue stimulated the creation of successful Gladue Courts in Toronto and elsewhere is testament to their importance in the effort to reduce overrepresentation and over-incarceration of Indigenous people.

The overall achievement of the Department of Justice Canada approach to Indigenous justice issues is also significant as many projects funded by the Indigenous Justice Program have been successful. Department officials have recognized that a genuinely active engagement of Indigenous communities in policy and program design and in program implementation is essential if local justice alternatives are to be effective.

A remaining concern is with the role of the mainstream justice system. Recognizing that the system will continue to be dominant – for the time being, at least – it is important to ensure the intersections between the mainstream structures (police, courts and corrections) and community approaches remain viable. The mainstream structures have important roles to play and they should work to fulfill those roles. A significant aspect of that work must involve close cooperation with Indigenous communities.

Underlying any policy development with respect to Indigenous peoples in Canada are the fundamental issues of historical and ongoing colonialism, systemic discrimination, social and economic marginalization, and culture clash. Thanks to the conclusions drawn by many experts and expert bodies such as RCAP, the TRC, and the Supreme Court of Canada, we know that poverty and unequal life chances contribute to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. Overcoming those historic and persistent challenges should be the first goal of governments, as well as Indigenous organizations and communities. Significant progress toward achievement of that goal will finally set the conditions whereby justice policy will truly be able to make positive and long lasting changes for Indigenous people. Overrepresentation might then become a thing of the past.