Social Challenges: The Well-being of Aboriginal People

Aboriginal people in Canada are at greater risk both for being victimized by violent and personal crimes, and for being negatively involved in the criminal justice system.

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Aboriginal people are three times more likely than non-Aboriginals to be victims of violent crime, and they are at even higher risk for being victims of assault, sexual assault, robbery and partner abuse.1

Over-representation of Aboriginals in the criminal justice system

Aboriginal people are also significantly over-represented as offenders in the Canadian criminal justice system. Incarceration rates of Aboriginal people are five to six times higher than the national average. Statistics from Correctional Service Canada show that while Aboriginal people represent only 2.8% of the Canadian population, they account for 18% of those who are incarcerated in federal institutions. In the Prairie provinces, 50% of prisoners are Aboriginals. 2

Historic inequities have left First Nations children, youth, and families without much-needed supports and services. Aboriginal people in Canada were deprived of their land, their cultural traditions, and their unique way of life. Children were removed from their families and sent away to residential schools – where many were abused – with well-documented inter-generational effects. Societal prejudices and discrimination against Aboriginals have created additional challenges.3

Today, an increasing number of Aboriginals live in Canada's major urban areas. Census data analyzed in the CCSD report, Urban Poverty in Canada, showed that Aboriginal people living in urban areas were more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Aboriginal people. According to the United Nations, First Nations children in western countries live in Third World conditions, with an estimated 80% of urban Aboriginal children under the age of 6 living in poverty. 4 The number of Aboriginal children involved with the child welfare system across Canada is also growing, and it rose by 71.5% between 1995 and 2001.5

The rapid changes associated with urban living and loss of traditional supports have compounded feelings of isolation and dislocation among Aboriginal people, further disadvantaging their families and communities, and placing them at increased risk for involvement in the criminal justice system. 6

The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples clearly linked unemployment, low income and poor educational attainment in their communities to subsequent criminality. 7

Correctional Service of Canada also notes that Aboriginal offenders are more likely than non-Aboriginal offenders to have experienced poverty, family violence and substance abuse in their home environment, and as children, they were more likely to have been involved with child welfare services. 8

Another factor influencing the over-representation of Aboriginals in crime statistics is the fact that while overall population growth has declined for other groups in Canada, the Aboriginal population is still experiencing a baby boom. This means that the current Aboriginal population is much younger than other groups, resulting in a much greater proportion of Aboriginals among the high-risk youth age categories. 9

See Statistics Canada for more information on Aboriginal demographic trends and involvement in the criminal justice system, and a portrait of the well-being of Aboriginal children. Also see CCSD's key social development indicators for Aboriginal people.

Initiatives to improve the well-being of Aboriginal people

In 2003, a Senate Committee reported that Aboriginals living in urban areas – nearly half of the entire Aboriginal population in Canada (49%) – fall through the policy cracks, since neither the federal nor provincial levels of government accept responsibility for their needs. 10

The Assembly of First Nations strongly endorsed the Senate Committee's recommendation that First Nations rights be made "portable" – that is, apply equally both on and off reserves. 11Other Aboriginal organizations highlight the need for more voluntary-sector services for Aboriginals living on reserves. 12

Despite the challenges, however, Aboriginal communities across Canada have developed some effective ways to address their needs, with support from federal and provincial governments. See, for example, "Fighting for First Nations Youth" and "Two Voices" in Preventing Crime through Social Development Bulletin No. 7 and various articles in Bulletin No. 8. Many other examples can be found in the Senate Committee Report.

One noteworthy federal initiative is Health Canada's Aboriginal Head Start Urban and Northern Program. The Program mobilizes Aboriginal non-profit organizations in urban areas and large northern communities to provide supports for young Aboriginal children. The program also empowers Aboriginal parents to meet the early developmental needs of their children, while also linking the families with other programs and services in their communities.

Other non-governmental organizations, such as the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada are dedicated to improving research, policy, and practice on the social conditions of Aboriginals and First Nations children in particular.

Aboriginals and the administration of justice

The following links provide additional information on justice issues for Aboriginal people in Canada:

See also the following resource:

Other Social Challenges

    Social exclusion