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State of the Criminal Justice System Dashboard

Understanding First Nations, Inuit and Métis Women and Girls’ Experiences with the Criminal Justice System

First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls are overrepresented in Canada's criminal justice system as both victims and survivors, and as accused and offenders.Footnote 75 For example, in 2014, Indigenous women were twice as likely than Indigenous men and three times as likely as non-Indigenous women, to self-report experiences of violent victimization.Footnote 76 Although Indigenous women represent only 4% of the adult female population, they made up 42% of the women admitted to provincial and territorial custody, and 40% of women held in federal correctional facilities in 2017/2018. These proportions have been trending upwards for over 10 years.Footnote 77

Indigenous youth are also overrepresented in the youth justice system and are more likely to be placed in custody when compared to their non-Indigenous peers. In 2017/18, slightly over half of girls held in provincial and territorial custody were Indigenous.Footnote 78

Although the information on the interaction of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls with the criminal justice system are presented in the Dashboard together as one group, Indigenous people in Canada are not one single population with one single voice. Instead, they are members of distinct nations with different histories, cultures, identities, knowledge, languages, understandings of the world, and social experiences. Where possible, a distinctions-based approach is used to present information about different Indigenous nations. However, most of the statistical data that is currently available identifies individuals as Indigenous without specifying distinct groups.

This section of the Dashboard provides a brief overview of the experiences of Indigenous women and girls in the criminal justice system. It provides information on the gendered impact of colonialism, an overview of Indigenous women and girls’ experiences with victimization and violence as well as within the correctional system, and measures put in place to try to respond to their overrepresentation.

Although Indigenous women and girls may have some similar experiences regarding the gendered impact of colonialism, violence and pathways to crime, there are differences in the adult and youth criminal justice systems that lead to unique differences in their overall experience. Information on the adult correctional system is included in this section of the Dashboard, which may be expanded on later to include additional information on the youth correctional system.

It is important to note that this not an exhaustive review of the literature on the experiences of Indigenous women and girls with the criminal Justice system. Rather, the purpose of these sections is to provide contextual information for the outcome data presented in the Dashboard on the overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls. The references used for these sections are only a small sample of the extensive literature that exists in this area of study. For additional information, click on the Studies link at the bottom of the page.

  • Gendered Impact of Colonialism

    Indigenous women and girls are far more likely than non-Indigenous women and girls to experience violent crime, particularly the more extreme forms of violent crime including homicide.Footnote 79 At the same time, Indigenous women and girls are greatly overrepresented in the Canadian prison populationFootnote 80 and these numbers continue to increase.Footnote 81 A substantial body of research, including recent national and provincial commissions of inquiryFootnote 82 and investigations by international human rights bodiesFootnote 83 point to the gendered impacts of colonialism as a central factor in the under-protection and over-criminalization of Indigenous women and girls.

    The dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and territories, the imposition of Western systems of law and governance, and the mass removal of children from their families and communities has caused profound and lasting harm to all Indigenous peoples. However, the impacts have been experienced differently by Indigenous women, men and two-spirit persons.

    “The position and role of Aboriginal women varied among the diverse nations. What was observed by European settlers was the power Aboriginal women enjoyed in the areas of family life and marriage, politics and decision making, and the ceremonial life of their people.” (RCAP 1996)

    The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) noted that in their earliest encounters with Indigenous peoples, European colonialists often commented on the essential role that women played not only in the family, but also within all aspects of the community, including as decision-makers.

    However, through colonialization, Indigenous peoples were forced to conform to European concepts of heterosexual and patriarchal norms that placed higher value on men’s political, economic, and cultural roles and responsibilities while devaluing those of women.Footnote 84 This was most evident with the enactment of the Indian Act in 1876, which explicitly defined Indian status through patrilineal descent and limited political and property rights exclusively to men. The criminal justice system was used to enforce the colonial laws and policies and penalized those who resisted.Footnote 85

    This historical context has shaped how Indigenous people understand and engage with the criminal justice system and those working within the system. For example, generations of Indigenous families have had their children forcibly removed through the Indian residential school system, and by the child welfare system, including during the 60s Scoop. According to the 2016 Census, there were more than 21,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis girls in foster care, accounting for almost two-thirds of all girls in care.Footnote 86 The role of police in removing children has had such a defining influence on their relationship that for example, police are known by some in the Carrier Sekani language as “those who take us away.”Footnote 87 These associations inevitably impact Indigenous women’s trust in the criminal justice system.

    European ideologies have placed less value on the lives of Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women and girls, and have shaped society’s assumptions about and expectations of them.Footnote 88 This has had a lasting impact on how Indigenous women are viewed in society, placing them at greater risk of violent victimization.Footnote 89

    The impacts of colonialism and the structure of societal attitudes and beliefs have led to patterns of intergenerational trauma that are profound in impact, but typically not reflected in official justice statistics. This includes the devaluing of Indigenous women and girls as human beings deserving of respect and protection of the law.Footnote 90

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

Click on the link above to learn how to share your study on the unique rights, needs or experiences of women interacting with the criminal justice system.

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