With inflated proportions of their neighbours in prison, on parole or at risk, the world's native communities have another urgent problem to contend with. Statistics show that the percentage of indigenous people in conflict with the justice system is extreme and in many places those numbers may be on the rise.
In Canada, the issue has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, aboriginals make up about 19 per cent of federal prisoners, while their number among the general population is only about 3 per cent. Between 1997 and 2000, they were ten times more likely to be accused of homicide than non-aboriginal people. The rate of natives in Canadian prisons climbed 22 per cent between 1996 and 2004, while the general prison population dropped 12 per cent. In similar societies, discrepancies are equally glaring.
While the numbers speak volumes, they remain the visible tip of the iceberg. "We're dealing with the generational effects of colonization", said Beverly Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada. "It has a very specific impact on an individual." She has found that generations of poverty, abuse and stigma have had a tremendous effect on native communities, often leading to crime. Ed McIsaac, Executive Director of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, agreed. "We've got a social and economic situation that impact on education, health and employment. These are variables that bring people into conflict with the justice system", he said.
Few refute the fact that aboriginal involvement in crime is proportionally higher than that of non-natives in places such as Canada. However, some believe that apart from deep-rooted stigma and social ills, outright discrimination by police and courts also exists. In fact, according to the Correctional Investigator-an appointed official who acts as an ombudsman for Canada's federal corrections-certain forms of systemic discrimination do exist in the justice system, Mr. McIsaac noted. What complicates the matter is that discrimination, by definition of the UN Human Rights Council, does not necessarily have to be deliberate. This means that ingrained misconceptions about natives, no matter how subtle, can be considered discriminatory when acted upon by police officers or judges. For indigenous people accused of crimes, this can mean unintentional racial profiling. For those incarcerated, it...