By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It has been more than three decades since the shooting death of J.J. Harper, and since the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) shone a light on how Indigenous people in Winnipeg and the province have been treated by the criminal justice system.
The statistics show it and it can be heard in the words of Indigenous leaders today, the same problems and inequalities that persisted in the justice system three decades ago continue today, despite the efforts of many, not much has changed.
The AJI was a public inquiry commissioned by the Manitoba government in 1988 the final report was released in 1991. Its stated purpose was “to examine the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples of Manitoba and the justice system.”
The AJI stated that inequalities throughout the entire criminal justice system in the province were negatively affecting Indigenous people in “grossly disproportionate numbers.”
“The justice system has failed Manitoba’s Aboriginal people on a massive scale,” the final report read. “It has been insensitive and inaccessible and has arrested and imprisoned Aboriginal people in grossly disproportionate numbers.
“Aboriginal people who are arrested are more likely than non-Aboriginal people to be denied bail, spend more time in pre-trial detention and spend less time with their lawyers, and, if convicted, are more likely to be incarcerated. It is not merely that the justice system has failed Aboriginal people; justice has also been denied to them.
“For more than a century the rights of Aboriginal people have been ignored and eroded.”
When the inquiry’s report was released, it gave several recommendations for improving relationships between law enforcement, the criminal justice system and Indigenous people and communities, also providing steps that could be taken to make those improvements.
But even today, 32 years after it was released, the “grossly disproportionate numbers” that were talked about in the AJI persist, and Indigenous people of all ages continue to be greatly overrepresented in all areas of the justice system, both as offenders and as victims of crime.
According to recent federal data, Indigenous people make up around 30% of the federal prison population in Canada while making up just 5% of the country’s population, but those numbers rise steeply in Manitoba, where it is estimated that at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, this province’s largest federal penitentiary, as many as 65 to 70% of inmates are Indigenous.
Federal data from 2014 also shows that 28% of Indigenous people over the age of 15 reported being victimized in the previous 12 months, compared to 18% of non-Indigenous people, and that the rate of violent victimization among Indigenous people was more than double that of non-Indigenous people.
The AJI was also commissioned in response to the brutal beating death of Helen Betty Osborne in 1971, and the ensuing investigation and legal proceedings which saw one of four men involved in the incident face any jail time, and not until more than 16 years after Osborne’s gruesome death.
Many Indigenous women in Manitoba say they do not feel safe and have not felt safe for a very long time, and the issue of violence against Indigenous women has actually gotten worse and not better since the AJI was released.
Indigenous women in Canada currently have an overall rate of violent victimization close to triple that of non-Indigenous women and continue to fall victim to domestic abuse, violent crime, and murder.
“The AJI was predicated upon the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, and is one of the blueprints on protecting Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited,” NDP MLA and Sagkeeng First Nation member Nahanni Fontaine said in a recent interview.
“And yet, 50 years after her murder, I would submit the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited are exponentially worse than they have ever been.”
Statistics paint a grim picture of a justice system in Manitoba where Indigenous people are greatly overrepresented, and Indigenous leaders in the province said recently that they have not seen a whole lot of change in the more than 30 years since the AJI was released.
On Feb. 24, in a joint statement, leaders with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) the Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO) and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) all reflected on the implementation and the impacts of the inquiry, and all said they believe there isn’t much to show for it.
“It has been over 30 years since the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, and our people continue to be disproportionately arrested and incarcerated,” AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said.
“Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls calls for justice continue to highlight the lack of progress that has been made since the AJI.”
The lack of progress persists despite the many community organizations, not-for-profits, advocates and volunteers in this city and province that work to help people and help entire communities that are struggling.
But those organizations struggle as well, as, according to Fontaine, they often work with little money or resources.
“Currently, community-based programs tell me they are working on shoe-string budgets,” Fontaine said. “These programs are our community centres, after-school programs, land-based programs, programs for youth, young adults, programs for the unhoused, and those dealing with substance use.
“What these groups need is strong, core-based funding to pay qualified staff a decent wage and just to keep up with inflation.”
MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said he places much of the blame for that lack of progress on the “systemic racism” that he said continues to plague all areas of the justice system and Canadian society, and said that is the reason many believe there has been little progress since the AJI was released.
“Incarceration rates for First Nation people have only worsened,” Settee said. “To date, most of the 296 recommendations have not been implemented.
“Our citizens remain disproportionately overrepresented in the justice system, and our staff continues to work diligently with First Nations to address the systemic racism and discrimination that still exist to this day.”
“We all have a responsibility to stand together and work towards immediate and significant changes for our people within the justice system.”
-Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.