Why are Indigenous people in Canada so much more likely to be shot and killed by police?
TORONTO -- An Indigenous person in Canada is more than 10 times more likely to have been shot and killed by a police officer in Canada since 2017 than a white person in Canada.
A CTV News analysis reveals that of the 66 people shot and killed by police in that timeframe for whom race or heritage could be identified, 25 were Indigenous.
That's nearly 40 per cent of the total. Adjusted for population based on 2016 census data, it means 1.5 out of every 100,000 Indigenous Canadians have been shot and killed by police since 2017, versus 0.13 out of every 100,000 white Canadians.
"It's totally alarming," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told CTVNews.ca via telephone from Ottawa on June 17.
"This is not acceptable, it's not right in 2020, but the trends are there."
The disparity doesn't stop there. Citing Statistics Canada data and various academic studies, a 2019 report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) found several other ways in which the Canadian justice system disproportionately targets Indigenous Canadians, including:
- Indigenous Canadians are 11 times more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to be accused of homicide
- Indigenous Canadians are 56 per cent more likely to be victims of crime than other Canadians
- In 2016, Indigenous Canadians represented 25 per cent of the national male prison population and 35 per cent of the national female prison population
"Why is it that we're 4.5 per cent of the population in Canada as First Nations people, but yet the jails are full of our people?" Bellegarde said.
Those who study the intersection of Indigenous Canadians and Canadian-style policing say the answer to that question cannot be found in what happens as cases make their way through the criminal justice system. Nor can it be found in what happens after police arrive at the scene of an incident, or in what happens as officers are dispatched.
The issues that lead to Indigenous Canadians facing overrepresentation in the Canadian justice system have roots that stretch years, decades, even generations into the past, experts say – and will never be addressed if attention isn't paid to injustices in other parts of the system.
"The conversation needs to be about systemic racism, and the continued colonial constructs that set up too many of these highly dangerous encounters," Norm Taylor, an executive adviser who has worked with police leaders and provincial governments on issues related to community safety, told CTVNews.ca via telephone from Oshawa, Ont. on June 17.
A SYSTEMIC PROBLEM
Taylor was one of the 11 experts on policing in Indigenous communities who put together the CCA report, which found that the current Indigenous overrepresentations in the justice system are directly linked to historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
They're also tied to the worse outcomes faced by Indigenous Canadians when it comes to poverty, mental health, addictions and other socioeconomic factors that are considered risk factors for negative encounters with the justice system.
"If you look at your sample, in the vast majority of those cases, you're going to find ... they're people with a host of risk factors operating, and the system has failed them," Taylor said.
"In many instances, the subject will hold similar contempt for the health-care system, child welfare, schools and any other elements of the state-run human services, because the system has not served them well. It has not served their families well."
The CCA report also concluded that moving away from these approaches and improving Indigenous health and well-being can best be achieved by adapting policing approaches to meet the needs of Indigenous communities, focusing on relationships and building trust rather than law enforcement.
Many of these themes are echoed in the recommendations in the 2019 report from the inquiry examining the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which are aimed at adding new mechanisms to ensure policing agencies meet the needs of the communities they serve.
These ideas may sound prescient now, as calls to defund the police gather steam across North America, but they're hardly new. Academics and Indigenous leaders have been touting them for decades, and many police leaders have more recently followed suit.
"Officers are doing the job that is asked, and often they're doing it under difficult and high-risk circumstances," Taylor said.
"One of the questions we have to be asking is 'Is it the job they should be doing? Are they adequately prepared to deal with all the intercultural mistrust? Do they even have the skills to provide a trauma-informed perspective?'"
Advice along these lines – which Taylor describes as "more about public health than … about policing" can be found in report after report after report presented to governments going back to the last century. While some parts of the country have slowly been moving in this direction, Bellegarde said the continued deaths of Indigenous Canadians at the hands of police are proof that much more needs to be done.
"The complacency of governments for lack of implementation of these reports and the recommendations therein is killing our people," he said.
Specific starting points for action could include making policing an essential service on reserves, guaranteeing stable funding levels for community leaders to rely on, Bellegarde said, as well as creating civilian police oversight bodies for communities that use the RCMP, increased screening for racial biases during the recruitment process, adding more Indigenous representation in positions of authorities and potentially redirecting some police funding to dedicated mental health response teams.
Although pushing for these changes has long been an exercise in frustration, Bellegarde said he is hopeful that the current wave of protests for justice reform will bear fruit.
"We have to take advantage of the groundswell of support. We have to keep pushing harder," he said.