Over Representation of Indigenous people in Canadian jails and prisons.


In April 1988, the Manitoba Government created the Public Inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People, commonly known as the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (‘AJI’). The co-Chairs of the AJI were Associate Chief Justice Hamilton of the Court of Queen’s Bench and Judge Murray Sinclair at the time the Associate Chief Judge of the Provincial Court. Murray Sinclair later served as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is now a Senator of Canada.

The Inquiry was created in response to two main incidents:

  • the trial in November 1987 of two men for the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas. Allegations were made that the identity of four people present at the killing was known widely in the community shortly after the murder.
  • The death (March 1988) of J.J. Harper, executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, following an encounter with a Winnipeg police officer. Many people, particularly in the Aboriginal community, believed many questions about the incident were left unanswered by the police service’s internal investigation.

The Inquiry issued its report in the fall of 1991. I was a bencher of the Law Society of Manitoba at the time. The Law Society is the governing body of the legal profession of Manitoba tasked with regulating the legal profession in the interests of the people of Manitoba. I am not proud to say what our governing body did with that report after it was delivered in 1991. The short answer is not much. Our inaction is part of the problem. I understand that now. I did not really appreciate it then, as did few of my colleagues.

The report of the AJI was one of the first reports to draw serious attention to the over representation of indigenous people in Manitoba’s jails and prisons. Almost 30 years later on the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition, which aired on August 2, 2020, guest host Elamin Abdelmahmoud asked Murray Sinclair, now a Senator, some pointed questions. He asked him this, “Senator you were one of the first judges to write about the over representation of indigenous people within the criminal justice system. You did this way back in the 1990s. Why has so little changed this since?”

The answer might surprise you. It surprised me. This is what he said in reply,

“Actually there has been quite a significant change, but the change has been upwards. When we reported on the over representation of indigenous people, the number of indigenous people in provincial jails in Manitoba was just around 60%. About 62%. Now it’s over 77%! And in the case of indigenous women represented about 78% of those who are incarcerated in the case of the AJI report, now its well over 90%! And youth numbers have gone up as well.”

Of course even these glaring figures don’t tell the whole story. In Manitoba  75% of all prisoners are indigenous and across Canada indigenous people make up a 25% of the prison population despite the fact that they represent only 4% of the country’s population. I think the percentage is about 11% in Manitoba.

Not only is this horrendous we have to understand the intergenerational impact of locking up so many indigenous people. Some more shocking numbers might make that clear too. Whether or not indigenous children themselves get involved with the Canadian justice system, indigenous children are 12 times more likely to have their family life disrupted by an agency of government such as a police officer or Child Welfare officer or some official who shows up at their house and takes somebody away or threatens to do so. These are horrendous disruptions and affect children powerfully. As Senator Sinclair said,

“You become the subject of a social control system virtually from the time that you are born until the time you yourself become an adult. So that impact is quite dramatic. You basically come to dislike or distrust those agencies who are doing that because as a child first of all you don’t understand what is going on, but more importantly you often get to resent it because you know that the person being dealt with often is a person that you don’t want taken away and you don’t want to lose in your live and yet you do. Or you yourself get taken out of the household and you don’t want that to happen and you know that things can always be fixed if only somebody would do the right thing and help the family”

Helping families is that not what it should be about?

Does anyone out there suggest that such massive over representation of indigenous people in jails  and prisons is a sign of systemic racism? Is there any other reasonable explanation?

Leave a Reply