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For more than a century, Canadian law has taken apart the Indigenous family, which has fuelled the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system

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Ryan Beardy has had a multifaceted life in politics, education and journalism; prison time was only one facet of that life.Courtesy of Ryan Beardy/Handout

Ryan Beardy is a justice advocate, mentor, public speaker and freelance journalist based out of Winnipeg.

If you get used to walking into prisons, as I have, it can all become unnervingly familiar. The bland, overlit rooms, the precisely set routines, the unswept gravel crunching beneath your sandals as you walk through the crumbling halls, the deep-rooted, musky scent of the place, and the brown faces, the ones that looked just like mine – it can begin to feel something like a home.

I was 13 years old when I was first led into one of these kinds of rooms, this one inside the Manitoba Youth Centre. I was there for stealing vehicles and joyriding, impetuous decisions that would tip me down a spiral of crime, jail and gangs. I had run away from abuse and a lack of opportunity back home in my reserve of Lake St. Martin First Nation, and I didn’t really have a strong family network: My father was a provider, but also at times abusive in his ways, while my mother was apathetic and cold, conditioned that way by her experiences in residential schools, though I know she loved me. Intergenerational trauma marked our lives.

So, as a child, I was mostly forced to take care of myself on the streets of Winnipeg.

These formative experiences bonded me with many of the other Indigenous youth I was incarcerated with. Every day, at 8 in the morning, we’d troop to the cafeteria and eat together; even then, I was struck by how wrong it felt that the room was filled with so many faces like mine. I found myself gravitating toward gang members, who started calling me family – “fam,” for short.

After my first stint in youth corrections, I officially joined a gang. And from there, I developed a criminal and violent streak that lasted into adulthood and had me shuttling in and out of various institutions in the years between, for an array of assault, mischief and breach charges.

I lost a lot of myself in those years, which ended with my release in 2017 – my last prison sentence, ever, because I don’t intend on going back. But I also found a community, a fam, that replaced what I’d lost. Sometimes literally: I occasionally met relatives for the first time in prison – cousins and uncles and more distant relations, a kind of family reunion behind bars.

I also remember meeting a man who was in prison with his two sons. Each one had taken their own path to get there – connected by the plights of addictions, poverty and housing instability, but unique in their own ways. But despite the circumstances, he told me they were actually quite happy to be reunited. The feeling of familiarity felt like a reprieve from the cold concrete walls.

It took leaving prison to understand the chilling reality of this scene. That this Indigenous family could be housed together felt remarkable, and it was only possible because they were all incarcerated.

So the findings of a recent Globe and Mail investigation – that risk assessment tools used to decide the classification of inmates, which prison an inmate will land in, their access to rehabilitative services and their chances of parole are inherently stacked against Indigenous and Black people – were awful, but not shocking to me. I’ve spent time behind bars, I’ve seen family members locked up, and I continue to work with Indigenous and Black men trying to better their lives. And I’ve long known that, for Indigenous and Black people, being seen as a higher risk and being treated differently is an unnervingly familiar experience.

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Razor wire sits atop a wall at the Thunder Bay District Jail. Indigenous people make up a far larger share of Canada's prison population than the general population.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Generations of Indigenous people have been promised – by different governments and through different reports – that fair and equal justice is finally coming. Yet the numbers of Indigenous people in federal prisons have reached historic highs. More than 30 per cent of all federal inmates are Indigenous, even though they make up only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population. The number of white inmates has decreased by 23.5 per cent since 2010, and the total number of inmates has declined, but the Indigenous population has increased by 52 per cent, according to the Correctional Investigator of Canada’s 2018-19 report. Indigenous youth made up 46 per cent of admissions to correctional services in 2016-17 while making up only 8 per cent of the youth population, according to Statistics Canada. In Manitoba, Indigenous youth represented more than 80 per cent of all youth admissions in 2018; in Saskatchewan, 92 per cent of boys in correctional services were Indigenous, as were 98 per cent of girls. The Assembly of First Nations says that a First Nation youth is now more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.

The effects of this overrepresentation can be crushing, both in and out of prison.

Indigenous offenders account for a disproportionate number of self-inflicted injuries, and are overrepresented in the number of incidents of attempted suicide, according to a report by the federal prison watchdog. A study of prisoners released from Ontario provincial jails in 2010 found that they had higher rates of addictions, schizophrenia and HIV than the general population. And a 2018 report by the Canadian Friends Service Committee documented how kids whose parents were incarcerated often end up with “complex long-term psychological, social and economic disadvantages."

Canadian governments of all stripes know about the problem. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, established in 1991, found that the justice system “has failed Aboriginal people.” A Public Safety Canada report in 1996 said “the consistent use of imprisonment for lifestyle-related offences such as administration of justice, public order and fine defaults, results in part, in high levels of imprisonment” of the Indigenous population.

This is always how it has been, and how it will be, until Canadian laws stop working to dismantle our families, criminalize our culture and make the justice system a trap from which redemption and rehabilitation is impossible.

Individual communities support and inspire and define who we are, yet Canada continues to stack the deck to deny Indigenous people such connections – with the notable exception, it seems, of inside our prisons.

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Saskatchewan, 1874: North West Mounted Police officers, as drawn by journalist Henri Julien, march west to bring the Queen's justice to the Canadian Prairies. The Mounties were a critical part of Canada's strategy to control the West as Indigenous people were being forced from their land and deprived of their traditional food sources and livelihoods.Courtesy of The Glenbow Collection, Calgary

This began in earnest after Confederation. According to James Daschuk’s book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, the Canadian government settled the West by subjugating and removing Indigenous people from their traditional territories, denying communities of food, exploiting disease, and deploying the threat of a heavy-handed justice system. "Even in a Canada that had just outlawed public hangings,” Mr. Daschuk wrote, “authorities made absolutely sure that their death would be a spectacle.” Newspapers would blare headlines to settlers about Indigenous criminals, justifying the government’s economic conquests.

Medicine people and healers were criminalized. Important aspects of traditional Indigenous legal, political and family systems were made illegal – sundances, sweat lodges, potlatch ceremonies. After the 1885 North-West Rebellion, the government instituted a pass system, which for decades required Indigenous people to have permission from an Indian agent to leave the reserves, even though there was never an actual law on the books allowing these passes to be enforced.

At the same time, laws were used to keep First Nations from supporting their communities and families. People on reserve weren’t allowed to enter into contracts or to sell products they made. If there were resources on the land, they couldn’t sell or lease them without government consent. They couldn’t even get together to complain about it; in the 1880s, three or more Indigenous people discussing a grievance against the Canadian government risked being charged with the jailable offence of conspiracy.

The government’s residential-school programs then made it illegal to keep children safe with their parents. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report tells of schools with “punishment rooms,” of children, far away from home, being chained together and others being shackled to their bed. “They treated us like criminals,” Joseph Martin Larocque, a former student at the Beauval residential school in Saskatchewan, told the Commission. “It’s like a prison. But we were small kids, and we didn’t understand.” In short, even though the last federally run residential school closed down in 1996 – not that long ago – they effectively trained an entire generation of First Nations children to be institutionalized.

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Children sit in a classroom at St. Joseph’s Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in 1951.

The Sixties Scoop tore families apart, too, taking children from loving but hardscrabble Indigenous homes and placing them into the child welfare system, away from their culture. And today, Indigenous children are being put in the child-welfare system at record rates. There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba; about 90 per cent are Indigenous. In 2019, a newborn was apprehended, on average, once a day in that province. Once they’re “aged out” of child and family services at 18, many are left to fend for themselves, and without support, a spiral of poverty, homelessness, addiction and crime can often take its toll – a “humanitarian crisis,” in the words of former federal minister for Indigenous services Jane Philpott.

These broken families and difficult economic circumstances fuel a pipeline for the prison system. Earlier this year, the Lancet, a leading health sciences journal, connected involvement in the criminal justice system with childhood trauma and adversity: “Neurodevelopmental disabilities, poor mental health, and childhood trauma and adversity can increase the risk of contact with the criminal justice system, and such risk is exacerbated by societal marginalisation and inequality.” And with Indigenous and Black people disproportionately carded on the streets in Canada, the social disadvantages of being introduced to the criminal justice system can quickly swallow people up whole.

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Prime minister Stephen Harper hugs residential-school survivor Evelyn Commanda-Dewache in 2015 after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's closing ceremony.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government played a big part in today’s crisis. The “tough on crime” Tories brought in a policy of mandatory minimum sentences in 2012, which assigns blunt standard punishments for low-level crimes, demonizes people, and makes it far harder to achieve real rehabilitation. Restrictive budgets for correctional facilities also led to inmates being charged for room and board; programming inside prison disappeared, and skill-development programs in cooking and farming disappeared.

But things have not gotten better under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Despite promises, his government has not overturned mandatory minimums; while his former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s mandate letter in 2015 called for the stemming of Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons, her successor, David Lametti, was not given the same instruction. Mr. Trudeau’s government has even spent more than $5.2-million to fight a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found that Ottawa had purposely underfunded on-reserve child welfare.

This has all laid out the conditions by which it’s become easy for Indigenous people to become incarcerated and, once they’re behind the bars, to be refused the resources needed to make a correctional facility actually about correcting one’s behaviours. “Indigenous men and women have not been given access to programs, to elders, to ceremonies, to community,” said Kim Pate, who worked for more than 30 years within Canada’s legal and penal systems before becoming a senator. The flawed risk assessment tool and processes, then, are just reflections of the broken and entrenched institution, she said: "Corrections fails to acknowledge that they are part of and perpetuate a racist system.”

So what can be done?

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Ryan Beardy's last prison sentence ended in 2017. He has no intention of going back.Courtesy of Ryan Beardy/Courtesy of Ryan Beardy

I don’t have the answers to this knotty and complex social problem – I wish I did. But I do know what worked for me: opportunity and community.

I got access to elders and ceremony during my periods of incarceration. I got to attend sweat lodges, fire-keep for the elders, learn to sing drum songs and learn about the medicines and seven sacred teachings. After overcoming the negative moral and value systems ingrained in me, Indigenous culture and concepts replaced them. I was fortunate that I didn’t get a risk assessment that held me back. I was given a trauma-informed approach during my time in Winding River Therapeutic Community, at the Headingley Correctional Centre, which gave me access to programs that helped me recognize and come to terms with my unhealthy behaviours. I was afforded early parole, minimum security, and access to programs and education. I got my high-school diploma behind bars, and when I was released, in 2017, I began studying political science at the University of Winnipeg.

Today, I’m a public speaker, a writer, an advocate, and a mentor. I sit on many non-profit boards. I run a men’s wellness group, and I’m about to sign a lease on a three-bedroom place to live with my children.

But I know most people don’t get so fortunate, and that, as lucky as I was, Indigenous people shouldn’t have to rely on luck. I know that my story would be different if I had just been given a different assessment, or if my file was handed to the wrong worker. Things would have been different if I hadn’t been given access to support or my culture.

So I’m working to share my luck.

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Mr. Beardy sits at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg at a men's group meeting.Courtesy of Ryan Beardy/Courtesy of Ryan Beardy

It’s been almost two years since I walked into the Thunderbird House in Winnipeg and looked around the room to about 10 men, all eager and nervous to share their stories. It was one of our first meetings as Healing Together, a men’s group I started when I noticed a real gap in services for Indigenous men who wanted to share their dreams, feelings and desire to change. We conducted a smudge ceremony in this large dimly lit building, then passed a feather around, and took turns speaking. We opened up our hearts and shared our stories about trauma and struggle.

In the time since, countless more men have passed through the doors to bravely tell their own stories, too. What they tend to have in common is a broken family – fragmented by incarceration, addictions and intergenerational traumas.

These are men who want to do better, men who want their families back, men who want to keep their families safe and healthy. But these are also men with criminal records, so it’s hard to find employment, making it easy to slide back to the negative behaviours with which they were once comfortable. These are men who have felt that the system is stacked against them. But despite the odds, and given proper resources, these are men doing the work to reclaim their identities and heal. These are men who have a chance.

A genuine commitment to achieving equal access to justice for Indigenous peoples requires recognition of the historical betrayals of governments and the justice system itself. It requires a focus on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, through resources devoted to family support and reunification, to restorative justice options, to reintegration programs and to addressing underlying social factors to stem recidivism. Homelessness, addictions, mental-health issues and family disconnect are all products of continuing systemic injustices by successive Canadian governments. My own experiences tell me that communities need each other to make the individual change we want to achieve.

I will never be back inside a correctional facility. But whenever I sit at my dinner table at home with my family, I can’t help but flash back to those cafeteria tables in prison, and how they were so often packed with the shards of broken families – someone’s brother, sister, father, friend, loved one. And I wonder if Canada will ever stop making this such a norm for the Indigenous family.

Illustration Bias behind bars: Read the investigation

Federal inmates’ risk assessments determine everything from where they are incarcerated to what rehabilitation programs they are offered. After controlling for a number of variables, The Globe found Black and Indigenous inmates are more likely to get worse scores than white inmates, based solely on their race.

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