N.W.T, Yukon and Nunavut have highest imprisonment rates in Canada

Man clutching jail cell bars.
Man clutching jail cell bars. Photo from iStock/Getty Images.

A disturbing analysis has come out which has found that Canada’s three Northern Territories jail more people per capita than all of the rest of Canada.

In fact, the incarceration rates are so high that Yellowknife lawyer Caroline Wawzonek told CBC News:

"With mischief and disturbing the peace, we're at 26 times and 36 times the national average. Those are tremendous numbers…And yet those are not the kinds of offences that people would normally be particularly fearful of."

CBC crunched the numbers for 2013, and found the incarceration rates for the three territories were the following:

  • Northwest Territories: nearly nine times as many people in jail per capita than Canadian average;
  • Nunavut: six-and-a-half times more inmates per capita than the rest of Canada;
  • Yukon: had the lowest incarceration rate than the other territories, only three times the Canadian average.

These numbers are truly disturbing. Yet the question must be asked: why is this happening and who are the people who are being incarcerated?

Statistics Canada has published the following estimates of population for the three territories in 2015:

  • Yukon: population of 37,400;
  • Northwest Territories: population of 44,100;
  • Nunavut: population of 36,900.

Statistics Canada also reported the following in 2011:

  • Many First Nations people made up the largest shares of the total population of the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Manitoba and Saskatchewan;
  • Nunavut had 27,360 Aboriginal peoples;
  • Northwest Territories had 21,160 Aboriginal peoples; and
  • Yukon had 7,705 Aboriginal peoples.
  • The biggest share of the Aboriginal population live in two of the three territories: Nunavut and Northwest Territories;
  • Nunavut’s Aboriginal population is represented by 86.3% of the total population, the Northwest Territories Aboriginal population is 51.9% of the population and in Yukon it’s 23.1% of the total population.

The emerging trend here shows that the places with some of the highest Aboriginal populations are the ones who have a grossly disproportionate amount of people getting incarcerated.

So, it becomes clear that most people who are incarcerated in the three Canadian territories are of Aboriginal descent.

That leaves us with the question why. Why are some many Aboriginal ending up in jail in the three territories?

One reason that so many Aboriginal people end up in jail is because they’re being incarcerated for even minor offences, which include mischief and disturbing the peace. Normally, these are minor offences and people are often freed with conditions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work here.

For example, one condition could be to stay away from alcohol. The problem is many Aboriginals are traumatized due to historic inequalities, that they are not able to stop addictions on demand. Many also suffer from mental illnesses that are not easily overcome – and often go untreated.

The unfortunate fact is that incarceration rates for Aboriginal people in Canada are so large, that the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report in 2013 entitled: Aboriginal Offenders - A Critical Situation.

In the report, Correctional Services states that even though Aboriginals only make up 4% of Canada’s population, they make up a whopping 23.2% of the federal prisoner population.

Another scary statistic is that 33.6% of Aboriginal women represent the federal female prison population in Canada, and this number is on the rise. The report further explained that there are even more Aboriginal women in the prison system than Aboriginal men.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. Gladue, that in cases which involve Aboriginal offenders, historic and current trauma which the Aboriginal people suffered must be considered in sentencing.

The case was about an Aboriginal woman, who stabbed her common-law husband and plead guilty to manslaughter.

This trauma, the court was referring to, is due to: residential schools, dispossession and dislocation, lack of education, being thrown into child welfare and adoption systems which has resulted in poverty, mental illnesses and substance abuse for quite a number of Aboriginal people. This, in turn, sometimes lands them in jail.

It becomes clear that a great deal of healing is required for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The system that has traumatized them should provide help instead of jailing them for even minor infractions.

Find a Lawyer