It’s not a new trend but the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Edmonton’s prisons is much higher than the Canadian average and continuing to grow at a faster rate, as advocates search for solutions.
CTV News Edmonton obtained statistics from Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator going back more than a decade.
They show that more than 65 per cent of inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women this month are Indigenous, up from 56 per cent in 2010.
Nearly 60 per cent of the men incarcerated at Edmonton Institution identify the same, up from 42 per cent in 2010.
About 6.5 per cent of people in Alberta identified as Aboriginal in a 2016 Stats Canada report.
“I don’t want to say it’s racism, I wish it wasn’t, but there’s a lot of racism involved in the policing and then secondarily, just the judicial system and the way it’s set up,” criminal defence lawyer Jill Shiskin explained to CTV News Edmonton.
“The Indigenous people that I end up working with have had really tough lives.”
Shishkin believes Indigenous people are over-policed as suspects and under-policed when they’re victims.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when now that group is charged more often, they’re convicted more often,” she said.
Also part of the problem, according to a legal navigator who works with Indigenous people, is that the justice system often perpetuates a cycle of imprisonment which usually starts small and then snowballs.
“The courts have not been able to address, were not designed to address, issues of addiction, housing and poverty,” said Stephen Shirt with Legal Aid Alberta.
“If we don’t address those issues when it is at that stage, where it’s just a small drug offence and it’s only a couple days, that sentence will grow larger and larger once they start reoffending without those proper supports in place.”
The data shows a continual increase in the proportion of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons over the last decade.
The rate is much higher, and also growing faster, in Edmonton’s federal prisons.
According to a local researcher, having more autonomy in the justice system would improve outcomes for Indigenous people.
“Non-Indigenous people focus way too much on sort of, ‘fixing the problem that Indigenous people have’…As opposed to locating the problems in the systems,” said Nancy Van Styvendale, a Native Studies Associate Professor.
She suggests moving away from current colonial justice practices, to more traditional Indigenous ones.
“The colonial justice system was placed over top of those existing Indigenous laws, so (we need to increase) respect for those laws and respect for Indigenous people being able to chart their own path,” Van Styvendale said.
The recent creation of specialized courts in Alberta is a good example of that, and Shirt expects those processes will help.
“What’s taking place within the Edmonton and Calgary Indigenous Courts, there is a focus on a holistic approach that leads to healing for the person,” Shirt said.
There were 258,640 Indigenous people in Alberta, out of a total population of 3,978,145, according to a survey done in 2016.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Carlyle Fiset and Katie Chamberlain
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