A joint federal, provincial and First Nations agreement signed Thursday marks a critical change to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s criminal justice system, says a British Columbia Indigenous leader.
Doug White, B.C. First Nations Justice Council chairman, said the reform agreement aims to reduce the number of Indigenous people who come in contact with the legal system and improve the experience for those who do.
Recent statistics from the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator show more than 30 per cent of Canada’s inmates are Indigenous, yet they make up about five per cent of the total population.
“The devaluation of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian society must end,” White said at a news conference. “It is a colonial legacy that has produced systemic racism, alarming rates of violence and the unacceptable growth in incarceration in federal and provincial corrections.”
The agreement represents “a new era and a new shared commitment to reforming and modernizing the criminal justice system,” he said.
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti and B.C. Attorney General David Eby also attended the virtual news conference.
Lametti said the agreement represents important first steps toward transforming the relationship between Indigenous people in B.C. and the justice system, and he hopes the program can be adapted and used across Canada.
The federal government will provide $8.9 million over five years to support and expand the number of B.C.’s Indigenous Justice Centres, which provide culturally appropriate legal information and representation for Indigenous people, he added.
The B.C. government and the First Nations Justice Council started the First Nations Justice Strategy last February, tackling the disproportionately high rate of Indigenous people in B.C.’s justice system, Eby said.
He said 48 per cent of youth in custody in B.C. are Indigenous and the fastest-growing population behind bars is Aboriginal girls.
“We need to turn this around, and the question is, obviously, how?” said Eby.
He said previous justice reform programs have not been successful, primarily because “they have been designed for Indigenous people, not by Indigenous people,” he said. A key goal under the new joint strategy is to improve supports for Indigenous people by expanding the centres throughout the province, he added.
There are currently centres in Merritt, Prince George and Prince Rupert, while a fourth centre operates online.
Eby said the province has plans to open 15 centres over the coming years.
White described the centres as the front lines of justice transformation in B.C., offering free legal services and safe guidance, connection and referral service for Indigenous people.
“The strategy will also increase the number of First Nations people working within the justice system,” White said. “We want to see more Indigenous lawyers, more Indigenous judges and more Indigenous workers across the system. They can help change the system from within.”