Max FineDay is executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a national non-profit that works with youth to advance reconciliation, and sits as a member of the interim National Council on Reconciliation.
It might be easy, maybe even fair, for Canadians to assume that reconciliation is well on its way. For a decade we’ve seen events such as the Canadian government’s apology to residential-school survivors, the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and greater awareness around Indigenous issues in the public sphere.
But reconciliation is far from accomplished; in some areas, we’re going backwards.
Last week, Statistics Canada released a report that tells a story diverging from the rhetoric of regret around Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. The study shows that while the overall rate for youth in custody is going down, the rate of Indigenous youth incarceration is going up.
Indigenous youth make up 8 per cent of Canada’s youth population, but account for 46 per cent of youth in custody. Indigenous boys are nearly half of the youth corrections population and Indigenous girls, 60 per cent. In Saskatchewan, more than 90 per cent of youth in custody are Indigenous. These statistics show that justice is not blind. Conditions for Indigenous peoples – the ones detailed by the TRC, for example – cause Indigenous children to fall into systems of injustice that are hard to escape.
These statistics, along with those regarding Indigenous youth in care, mean that Canada is now curating another generation of Indigenous children – such as residential-school survivors or Sixties Scoop kids – who will have to recover from their childhoods. Canada hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think.
The youth we’re talking about live through more adversity than we can imagine. Statistically, Indigenous youth live in extraordinary poverty, experience fierce racism and are raised by the state, or parents and grandparents who were ripped from their communities before they learned how to parent. This is a young person in Toronto, North Battleford or Vancouver. This injustice happens every day, in every region, without us recognizing it. Our current justice system isn’t working. Youth jails are breeding grounds for gangs, criminal-skills acquisition and anger. Youth leave with deeper criminal connections, better prepared to commit crime. This is how they re-enter our communities. It is not in Indigenous people’s DNA to commit crimes, to harm others, to take what is not theirs. This was not the occupation of youth in our societies before colonization.
When first settlers arrived in Canada, Indigenous peoples helped them learn how to live on this land. We made agreements that spoke of peace and friendship, bounty and benevolence, for as long as the sun shines. To meet the challenges that trouble us, to find the answers to today’s problems, we must look back to that original relationship. Indigenous peoples have a vision for safer communities, for a justice system that undoes the damage inflicted on our youth and replaces it with the skills and confidence to succeed in a modern economy. Imprisonment and punishment do not make safer communities; true justice does. Canada must acknowledge it has been getting this wrong. Our justice system doesn’t successfully rehabilitate Indigenous youth, in part because they have not found their place in the world. They see their communities and families suffering. Many have no hope.
To correct its unjust youth justice system, Canada must shift responsibility for its philosophy and program delivery to Indigenous professionals. Its ultimate vision should be to have select institutions led by Indigenous professionals in every region, with a mandate to decolonize and heal Indigenous young offenders. This idea has been successful in places such as New Zealand, fed up with high Indigenous incarceration rates. When youth learn where they come from, understand how and why colonization happened and how it affects them today, and are supported in charting a better path for themselves, they have more chances to break cycles of crime. We need to restore in these youth the values – such as honesty, integrity, love, hard work and accountability –that governed Indigenous nations. Indigenous youth are Canada’s fastest-growing population. It’s costing countless millions to detain instead of decolonize. It’s an unacceptable return on investment.
So let us be bold in Canada’s 152nd year. Let us find justice, create opportunities for Indigenous youth to have pride and a place in this country.
All we require is Canada’s will and action, its trust that Indigenous nations want safe communities, the best for our children and its belief that they can be healed.
A justice system that commits to decolonizing an emerging generation will help heal sins of the past and create a brighter future for us all.