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State of the Criminal Justice System Dashboard

Learn More about Indigenous Peoples and the Criminal Justice System

In Canada there is increased awareness and appreciation for cultural diversity and preservation of Indigenous peoples' culture. Canada’s 2016 Census indicated that over 1.6 million people self-identified as being Indigenous, which represents 4.9% of the Canadian population.Footnote 1 As well, there is great diversity within the Indigenous population with various identities, voices, and perspectives. Specifically, they have distinct histories, cultures, languages, worldviews, and social experiences.Footnote 2 In 2016, the Government of Canada recognized its commitment to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in accordance with the Canadian ConstitutionFootnote 3 as “the rights recognized herein constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world”.Footnote 4

Today, Indigenous peoples living in Canada speak over 70 Indigenous languages with over 260,000 speakersFootnote 5; they practice ceremonial and seasonal celebrationsFootnote 6; and they maintain distinct legal traditions involving prevention, spirituality, healing, reintegration, and reconciliation.Footnote 7

The following two sections provide a brief overview of academic literature, studies and reports by commissions and inquires that have looked into the experiences of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian criminal justice system. Specifically, they outline how Canada’s colonial history, systemic discrimination, socio-economic marginalization, and cultural differences have contributed to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

It is important to note that this is not a full summary of the literature nor does it provide results exclusively from empirical research. Rather, the purpose of these sections are to provide some contextual information on the interaction of Indigenous peoples with the Canadian criminal justice system. This can provide context for the outcome data presented in the Dashboard, especially the overrepresentation of Indigenous people.The references used for these sections are only a small sample of the extensive literature that exists in this area of study. For additional links to other literature and studies, click on the Studies link at the bottom of the page.

Understanding the Overrepresentation of Indigenous People in the Criminal Justice System

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the Canadian criminal justice system as both victims/survivorsFootnote 8 and accused/convicted persons. For example, in 2014, a significantly higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous people in Canada (aged 15+) reported being victimized in the previous year (28% vs. 18%).Footnote 9 In 2016/2017, Indigenous adults accounted for 30% of provincial/territorial custody admissions, 27% of federal custody admissions, and 27% of the federal in-custody population, while representing 4.1% of the Canadian adult population.Footnote 10 At the same time, Indigenous youth accounted for 50% of custody admissions, while representing 8% of the Canadian youth population.Footnote 11 These proportions have been trending upwards for over 10 years.

To understand fully the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, it is necessary to consider the context in which it is occurring. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, the following information provides an overview of some of the literature on factors contributing to such overrepresentation. It includes references to numerous studies, inquiries and commissions undertaken since the 1980s, as well as judicial and program responses implemented to address overrepresentation. Additional information about the experience of Indigenous peoples' interaction with the criminal justice system can be found in the Studies section of the Dashboard.

In 1996, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was released. It found that the greatest contributor to overrepresentation were the colonial values underlying Canadian criminal laws, policies and practices that have had negative impacts on Indigenous peoples.Footnote 12 As a result of Canada’s colonial history, Indigenous peoples have been subjected to assimilation policies and practices that have created collective and individual intergenerational trauma resulting in negative impacts on social determinants of health for many. Their experiences, often compounded by inadequate housing as well as limited education and employment opportunities, have been identified in the literature as contributing to Indigenous people being in contact with the criminal justice system more often and for longer periods than non-Indigenous people.

For additional information and a summary of some of the literature that highlights causes of overrepresentation, click on the links below or click on the Studies link at the bottom of the page.

Addressing Overrepresentation

To address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system there have been a number of governmental, legislative, judicial and program responses.

Although not a complete list, the links below provide an overview of some of the main responses that have been used to address overrepresentation.

For related studies and resources, please click on the link above.

Click on the link above to learn how to share your study on Indigenous people’s experiences interacting with the criminal justice system