Mr. Chair, thank appreciate the opportunity to rise on this very important issue. Before I start, I would to acknowledge the tragic events that have occurred in Florida and extend my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in the chamber to the people of Florida.
On this important issue, Canada can and must do better when it comes to indigenous peoples, especially with respect to the criminal justice system.
The events of the past week have occurred not in a vacuum, but in the context of a strained relationship over generations between indigenous people and the justice system, a system that has often been used to control and even deny the basic rights of indigenous peoples.
For indigenous peoples in Canada, the numbers tell a disturbing story. Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada's criminal justice system as both victims and offenders, while simultaneously being under-represented as actors within that system. The rate of violent victimization of indigenous people is more than double that of non-indigenous peoples and is particularly concerning when it comes to indigenous females. Shockingly, indigenous people are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous people.
The causes are many, rooted in the colonial legacy. This includes intergenerational effects of violence and sexual abuse at residential schools, which has resulted in poverty, isolation, and social exclusion.
The Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls continues its work in seeking out the underlying causes that contribute to the violence and sexual abuse that indigenous women and girls are experiencing. No doubt its recommendations will be very helpful.
In the meantime, however, we must look at all available options to address the disproportionate victimization and incarceration of indigenous people if we truly can achieve and will achieve reconciliation.
The figures of indigenous overrepresentation as accused and in our prisons are just as alarming. Indigenous adults account for 27% of admissions to custody, while only 4.1% of the adult population. The numbers are even worse for indigenous females.
Indigenous youth account for 35% of admissions to correctional institutions, while constituting 7.5% of the Canadian youth population.
Please consider those figures and what they mean for the future of indigenous people if we do not act. Indigenous people constitute one-third of our prison population. In some provinces, the numbers are significantly higher. This disturbing trend will only get worse over time.
If over-victimization and over-incarceration continue, today's indigenous youth will be the majority inhabitants in tomorrow's prisons.
We still have a window of opportunity to act, but it is closing fast. We must save the next generation of indigenous youth from the vicious and interrelated cycles of victimization and incarceration.
There is another sad truth, one that contributes to the feelings within many indigenous communities that the criminal justice system is not there to serve them. That truth is that indigenous people hold few positions of power and influence in that system. Indigenous peoples are seriously under-represented as judges, lawyers, crown prosecutors, police, and jurors. This is no mere trifle. We have seen how persistent under-representation can taint the justice system, leading to indigenous peoples to feel that it does not represent them or serve them.
While indigenous peoples have a unique history and constitutional relationship within Canada, they are not alone in this feeling of exclusion. Earlier this week, I sat down with representatives of the Federation of Black Canadians. They described to me how people of African descent in Canada faced similar crisis of overrepresentation as accused and under-representation as people of influence in the system.
Similar concerns have been raised about the overrepresentation as accused in the criminal justice system of those with mental illness, FASD, and addictions. I hear those concerns too. Indeed, I am certain that as we work to improve the system for indigenous peoples, we will be doing so for all Canadians.
What is the way forward?
First, we must change the face of the system to make it one that is truly reflective of the diversity of Canadian society. Only then can all Canadians have faith and trust in its outcomes.
Our government has made important strides on this front. Since the beginning of my mandate, I have appointed indigenous jurists to the bench, along with other visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ2 community. These numbers will continue to grow with time and as the legal profession becomes more diverse. Our justice system will certainly be the richer for it.
In addition, many have suggested that peremptory challenges contribute to the under-representation of indigenous people on juries. This is also likely true for black Canadians and other marginalized populations. In this respect, I wish to underscore what the Prime Minister said earlier today. We will bring forward broad-based, concrete reforms to the criminal justice system, including changes to how juries are selected.
These are but two concrete steps that we can take to address the under-representation of indigenous people as jurors, judges, and professionals. I look forward to the debate today, as I am sure others will have helpful and innovative solutions to propose.
I also look forward, in the near future, to introducing reforms to the criminal justice system that will address not only delays but overrepresentation of marginalized communities. We have worked closely with the provinces and territories on this front. All have agreed that urgent, bold action is needed. There was support among my colleagues and I for improving the bail system to address its disproportionate impact on vulnerable people. Ministers also identified preliminary inquiries, offence reclassification, reform of mandatory minimum penalties, and case management as areas ripe for reform.
Rest assured, we will be proposing reforms that strike an appropriate balance between the needs of victims, indigenous and otherwise, and the need for off-ramps from the criminal justice system. Victims and their families have repeatedly expressed how they feel lost, excluded, and often re-victimized by the criminal justice system. We are working to change this.
Meanwhile, the system cannot see to the needs of victims and tackle serious crime because it dedicates too much of its time and resources to prosecuting vulnerable and marginalized offenders. These offenders need appropriate off-ramps from the criminal justice system, not another ticket back in.
Criminal justice reform is not easy, but current events have highlighted the need for action. We need to work together to adopt evidence-based approaches to criminal justice reform that truly work to make us safer and a more just society.
Before I end, I would like to say this. Reforms to the criminal justice system and the justice system writ large are indeed an integral and necessary step toward reconciliation with indigenous peoples in our country. However, those reforms will only achieve true success if coupled with a new relationship with indigenous peoples.
Today, we heard the Prime Minister, in his historic indigenous policy statement, confirm that all of our relations with indigenous peoples must be based on the recognition and implementation of rights, including self-determination and the inherent right of self-government. New legislation and policy will be developed in the near future and will formalize this approach.
One of the implications of this is that indigenous governments and nations, as they undertake the work of rebuilding their political, social, and economic structures, will play an increasing role in reshaping elements of Canada's justice system. The role of indigenous laws, legal orders, and courts will expand as we continue to evolve Canada's tradition of legal pluralism.
The importance of this cannot be understated. Our justice system has never been static; it changes and evolves. The next frontier in that evolution will see indigenous peoples continuing to craft their own solutions to the crisis in confidence we currently face.
Perhaps more than any one set of reforms, it is the forging of this new nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples, creating a climate of trust with them and a climate of trust in our justice system, that will truly set us on a path of reconciliation.