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Disproportionate numbers of First Nations and African-Canadians in Ontario jails

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (photo by Brian Summers)

Aboriginal and black youth are overrepresented in Ontario's correctional facilities, says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies and a Junior Fellow at Massey College.

“The over-representation of these groups in Ontario’s correctional system signals that First Nations and African-Canadians are either disproportionately involved in crime, or that they face discrimination in the administration of justice,” says Owusu-Bempah. “Available research indicates both to be true.”

Ontario jail data obtained by Owusu-Bempah shows that aboriginal boys aged 12 to 17 make up 2.9 per cent of the young male population in the province. However, in Ontario youth correctional facilities, they make up nearly 15 per cent of young males – five times more than their proportion of the general young male population.

For black youth, the proportion is four times higher than their proportion of the general young male population. 

For white boys and boys of other ethnicities, there is no such overrepresentation.

Aboriginal girls account for a significant percentage in Ontario facilities: 10 times higher than their proportion of the province’s general population of young girls.

“There are more white Canadians under the supervision of the province’s correctional system than members of any other racial group, but that is because they make up the largest single racial group in the province,” says Owusu-Bempah. “On average, white Canadians and all other racial groups have been under-represented compared to the general population.”

Owusu-Bempah says that as First Nations and African-Canadians are overrepresented among the poor and working poor in Canada, it should not be a surprise that they are more involved in certain types of criminal activity, and thus come into conflict with the law.

“However, using incarceration to control populations that are viewed as problematic in an effort to reduce crime is a costly practice that actually further intensifies the challenges facing such communities.”

Dealing with the causes of crime rather than the consequences would be a better approach, he says.

“We need to rethink how we deal with the social exclusion that many young First Nations and African-Canadians experience.”

Owusu-Bempah says reducing poverty among First Nations and African-Canadians should be a priority. He suggests that both groups need to be allowed to have fuller participation in Canadian society and offers several approaches to achieve this:

  • make school more relevant and engaging for those who struggle, whatever their race, in order to help increase graduation rates and pave the way for success
  • keep school buildings open after regular school hours and provide young people with meaningful activities to occupy their time
  • provide adequate opportunities for meaningful employment after graduation
  • acknowledge and address the more difficult parts of our nation’s history that have contributed to the problems faced by First Nations and African-Canadians. This includes understanding how the remnants of residential schools, the system of reserves, slavery, segregation continue to influence our society
  • ensure that First Nations and African-Canadian communities continue to take leadership roles in identifying and working towards solving the problems that face their young people.

“Many of these recommendations have been made in the past,” says Owusu-Bempah. “It is time that some of them are put into action.”

The data obtained by Owusu-Bempah is explored fully in Unequal Justice, the Toronto Star's in-depth investigation into race and punishment in Ontario jails.