On 6 August 2009, Donald Marshall, Jr passed away. Marshall, a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, was wrongfully charged and convicted in the death of Sandy Seale in 1971. Although an appeals court overturned the decision in 1983, the presiding judge nonetheless argued that Marshall himself was partly to blame for the conviction. If that’s not the greatest example of systemic racism and of passing the buck, then I don’t know what is.
The eulogies that have since been said for Marshall got me thinking about the prejudices that First Nations people face in the Canadian justice system and in society at large. Although I’ve always understood that our justice system has never been kind to the First Nations and that the number of aboriginal peoples in correctional institutions are not at all proportionate to their numbers within the general population, I didn’t have a real sense of the problem because I’ve never actually looked at the incarceration rates. So this weekend I logged into Statistic Canada’s E-Stat database to see what the numbers really are. I first pulled up census data from 1996, 2001, and 2006, all of which are available electronically and asked the general population in a simple question if they self-identified as First Nations in order to get a general sense of the aboriginal population of Canada. Then I analyzed CANSIM Tables 251-0001, 251-0002, and 251-0012 to cross-reference the national aboriginal population against the the aboriginal prison population.
The findings, attached as a PDF (click to view), are startling. On the whole, national aboriginal incarceration rates for 2006 (i.e., at the last census) are nearly 6 1/2 times higher than the aboriginal population as a percentage of the national population:
In 2006, 1,172,785 Canadians self-identified as Aboriginal, or 3.71% of our population of 31,612,897.
Also in 2006, 24% of the 90051 Canadians who were admitted to a custodial sentence self-identified as aboriginal.
(Source: 2006 Census Data; CANSIM Table No. 251-0001: Adult correctional services, admissions to provincial, territorial and federal programs, annual)
The numbers aren’t pretty. Although StatCan‘s data doesn’t track back to 1971 – the time of Marshall’s conviction – over 25+ years of data shows that the aboriginal incarceration rate has increased steadily. In 1983, when the Marshall conviction was overturned, 13% of the prison population was aboriginal; since 2001 it has has rested at over 15%, and since 2004 over 20% of the prison population has self-identified as aboriginal.
The same spikes are evident at the youth criminal justice level, as well. Some incarceration rates at the youth level have increased by over 10% in ten years:
- In 1998/99: 13.01 % of all youth who were admitted into correctional services self-identified as aboriginal.
- In 2008/09, 17.9% self-identify as aboriginal.
- In 1998/99, 14.52% of all youth who were admitted into secure custody self-identified as aboriginal.
- In 2008/09, 23.57% self-identify as aboriginal.
- In 1998/99, 15.2% of all youth who were admitted into open custody self-identified as aboriginal.
- In 2008/09, 27.73% self-identify as aboriginal.
- (Source: CANSIM Table 251-0012 – Youth custody and community services (YCCS), admissions to correctional services, by sex and aboriginal identity, annual)
There is more data found in the spreadsheet, including a tracking of these national youth criminal justice and adult criminal justice rates on an annual basis. I’ve also listed the rates for Nova Scotia, Marshall’s home province, but many of these provincial numbers might be unreliable because of the small size of the Nova Scotian population, which results in spikes from one year to another. Regardless, the patterns that do emerge from the wider national data highly suggest that First Nations peoples have not been given a fair shake by either the justice system or our social structures.
Consult Statistics Canada and the Federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. StatCan, I only noticed a few hours before publishing this post, recently published a lengthy analysis, “The incarceration of Aboriginal people in adult correctional services” in Juristat 29(3), July 2009, StatCan Catalogue No. 85-002-X. This 26-page document is a free download for anyone looking to do serious work with the data.