This is the third in an eight-part series on The Gordon Foundation's Jane Glassco Fellowship Program.
WHILE LESS THAN a quarter of Yukon residents are Indigenous, they represent between 70 to 90 percent of the Territory’s prison population. Young Indigenous men, meanwhile, those 25 and under, are twice as likely to be incarcerated as their non-Indigenous counterparts.
The majority of those admitted to Yukon correctional facilities are for non-violent offenses, and the cost of maintaining these jails far exceeds the price of implementing measures to keep people out of the criminal justice system. At $14.6 million, it was nearly a quarter of the Yukon Department of Justice’s entire budget in 2013-14.
It’s also impossible to ignore a simple truth, detailed by Melaina Sheldon as part of the Jane Glassco Fellowship program. “In criminal matters,” she writes, “First Nations people appear to be presumed guilty rather than innocent by Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the North,” a key reason why Aboriginal incarceration rates are disproportionately high in the Yukon.
In a policy paper released as part of the Glassco Fellowship in May of this year, Sheldon, who is Inland Tlingit and Southern Tutchone from Teslin, Yukon, explored policy options to keep First Nations youth out of the Yukon’s correctional facilities.
“There is a need to prevent Indigenous youth from entering the correctional system from the starting point,” Sheldon writes. “And the first gateway to the correctional system is interactions with the RCMP.”
After all – “What vital contribution can [Indigenous youth] make to Canadian society if they are behind bars?”
In criminal matters, First Nations people appear to be presumed guilty rather than innocent by Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the North.
It’s a question in dire need of new thinking. For one reason, Indigenous people (and especially Indigenous youth) are the fastest growing demographic in the country. But too many are ending up behind bars for dubious reasons. That’s why Sheldon’s policy paper examines different options for keeping Aboriginal youth out of the correctional system.
The Yukon Police Council was one avenue for change, but its impacts have been minimal. Established in 2010, the Council’s aim was to give communities greater control and influence over police services and policies across the Territory.
While the Yukon Police Council offered citizens broad representation and input into police activities, it has limitations. Incarceration rates and community police complaints have increased since it was established. Currently, the Yukon has some of the highest rates of complaints against the RCMP in Canada. Overall, the Council is seen as ineffective in many circles and its results difficult to measure.
Sheldon’s paper proposes a solution – the Yukon Phoenix Pilot Project Training Initiative. The project has yet to be implemented, but the idea is to bring together First Nations youth, aged 12 to 14, and Whitehorse-based RCMP officers to participate in an immersive two-day workshop.
Utilizing theatre techniques to provide training on the history of Yukon First Nations and their tumultuous relationship with the RCMP, the Phoenix project could be run through Yukon College at a cost of $11,000 a day. The pilot aims to foster mutual understanding and respect between police and First Nations youth while constructing a safe, collaborative space to create “a muscle memory for future, positive interactions.”
Sheldon believes the Phoenix project could become an effective training tool for the RCMP to build stronger relationships between First Nations and the police, leading to more culturally sensitive law enforcement across the Territory.
Yet the program too has its limits. To achieve meaningful, lasting results, only four youth and four officers can participate in a single workshop, ensuring wide implementation could take a long time. Schedules can be hard to work around, and secure funding hard to find. The Yukon RCMP, meanwhile, have a high turnover rate, meaning officers trained in the Phoenix project could soon after be transferred out of the Territory.
While the pilot has yet to be conducted, it enjoys support from all parties to move ahead. Until it does, Sheldon believes her policy paper can provide an opportunity for public conversation to discuss ways of rethinking the relationship between Indigenous peoples and law enforcement in Canada.
To read Melaina Sheldon’s policy paper as well as other policy work from the Jane Glassco Northern Fellows, please visit The Gordon Foundation's website.
Part of the NORTHERN PERSPECTIVES series, a special editorial collaboration between the Gordon Foundation and Alternatives Journal.
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