Volume 63 Issue 2, April 2021, pp. 23-45

There is abundant evidence of the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian correctional facilities but, there is, however, limited research on the over-representation of Indigenous peoples at other stages of the criminal justice system. This article examines self-reported contacts with the police by Indigenous peoples in Canada as a way to broaden our understanding of their over-representation in the criminal justice system. Settler colonialism is used as a theoretical framework to better assess the various processes by which Indigenous peoples and police may come into contact. Using data from the 2014 General Social Survey, we quantitatively examine the prevalence of various types of police contacts for Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents. Results suggest that Indigenous peoples are more likely to encounter the police for a variety of reasons including for law enforcement reasons, for non-enforcement reasons, including being a victim or a witness to a crime, and for behavioural health-related issues. Results are discussed within the context of historical and ongoing settler colonial practices and the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system.

Il y a d’abondantes preuves que les personnes autochtones sont surreprésentées dans les établissements correctionnels canadiens. En revanche, il y a peu de recherche sur la surreprésentation des personnes autochtones lors des autres étapes du système de justice pénale. Cet article examine les contacts avec la police autorapportés par les personnes autochtones du Canada comme moyen d’élargir notre compréhension de leur surreprésentation dans le système de justice pénale. Le colonialisme de peuplement est utilisé comme cadre de travail théorique afin de mieux évaluer les différents processus par lesquels les peuples autochtones et la police pourraient entrer en contact. À l’aide de données obtenues de l’Enquête sociale générale de 2014, nous examinons quantitativement la prévalence de divers types de contacts policiers chez les répondants autochtones et non autochtones. Les résultats suggèrent que les peuples autochtones sont plus susceptibles d’avoir des contacts avec les policiers, et ce, pour plusieurs raisons tant en lien avec l’application de la loi que non, notamment être victime ou témoin d’un crime ou encore pour des problèmes reliés à la santé et au comportement. Les résultats sont examinés dans le contexte des pratiques de colonialisme de peuplement historiques et continues et de la surreprésentation des peuples autochtones dans le système de justice pénale.

Deemed a crisis by the Supreme Court of Canada more than twenty years ago in R v Gladue (1999), the over-representation of Indigenous peoples1 in Canada’s criminal justice system remains one of the nation’s most pressing issues. The most recent official statistics indicate that, while Indigenous adults represented 4.1% of the adult population in 2016–2017, they accounted for 27% of admissions to federal correctional services and 28% of admissions to provincial and territorial correctional services (Malakieh 2018). Despite various efforts to address this issue, empirical evidence suggests that the disproportionate involvement of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian criminal justice system persists. In fact, Roberts and Reid (2017) note that, while the volume of overall incarceration in the country declined from 2000 to 2014, the proportion of prison admissions for Indigenous peoples has actually been increasing.

Within this context, the issue of the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian criminal justice system has received considerable attention from Canadian scholars and governmental agencies. Since the late 1960s, studies have identified and attempted to explain the disproportionate involvement of Indigenous peoples in the legal system through various theoretical frameworks (e.g., Bienvenue and Latif 1974; Canadian Corrections Association 1967; Jackson 1989; LaPrairie 1990, 1997, 2002; McMullen and Jayewardene 1995; Roberts and Melchers 2003; Rudin 2006; Zimmerman 1992). While these studies have improved our understanding of the issue, there is still much to learn about the causes and consequences of this over-representation. In particular, most studies have focused on the involvement of Indigenous peoples in correctional facilities. This may be explained in part by the availability of correctional data on Indigenous identity and the absence of reliable data for policing and courts.2 While undoubtedly important, this focus on one area of the criminal justice system overlooks numerous other actors in the justice system who play a critical role in Indigenous peoples’ over-representation in the system more broadly.

One area that has been largely overlooked by Canadian scholars has been the role of the police in the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system. Due to their crucial positioning as gatekeepers to the criminal justice process, some have argued that any inquiry into the over-representation of Indigenous peoples must start with the police. For instance, Zimmerman (1992: 373) argues that: “[the] police [make] decisions as to where to place surveillance, who to arrest, when to lay charges and what charges to lay which determine, at the start, how Aboriginal people are drawn into what they have dubbed the “injustice” or the “just-us” system.” Yet, there are few empirical studies examining Indigenous peoples’ contacts with the police. Although there is empirical evidence which suggests that Indigenous peoples have disproportionate contacts with the police (Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission 1999; Fitzgerald and Carrington 2008, 2011; Ontario Human Rights Commission 2003, 2017), much of the literature detailing discriminatory and racist encounters with the police are qualitative and/or anecdotal in nature (e.g., Comack 2012; McGillivray and Comaskey 2000; National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2019; Razack 2015; Sinclair 2018). In other cases, studies have explored Indigenous peoples’ encounters with the police indirectly, generally as an independent variable (e.g., Alberton et al. 2019; Cao 2014).

However, to our knowledge, there has been no national, representative study which systematically and quantitatively examines as a dependent variable the prevalence of contacts with the police among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Such a study is critical to understanding Indigenous peoples’ involvement in the Canadian criminal justice system, as it may shed light on whether their disproportionate involvement begins at the earliest stage of the system. Accordingly, this article assesses whether Indigenous peoples may disproportionately experience several types of contacts with the police by examining the prevalence of self-reported encounters in the preceding year. More precisely, various forms of encounters with the police are considered, including contacts for enforcement reasons (e.g., arrest and traffic stop), non-enforcement reasons (e.g., victim of a crime and witness to a crime) and behavioural health-related reasons (e.g., mental health or substance abuse by the individual or a family member). While these types of encounters do not necessarily lead to punitive outcomes, they nevertheless reflect significant forms of involvement with the police and, in some cases, may act as a precursor to more serious criminal justice system involvement.3 This article uses settler colonialism as a theoretical framework to better understand the various circumstances by which Indigenous peoples and police may come into contact. Ultimately, this article seeks to broaden our understanding of the ways in which Indigenous peoples in Canada may be over-represented in the criminal justice system by exploring whether this issue has developed, at least in part, as a result of disproportionate police contact.

Settler colonialism is a theoretical framework that developed from the colonialism literature to become a distinct area of scholarly inquiry. This framework recognizes the importance of understanding issues faced by Indigenous peoples within the context of ongoing settler colonial policies and practices. Settler colonialism has been gaining traction within the criminological literature on Indigenous peoples and literature on over-incarceration in particular (e.g., Chartrand 2019; Cunneen and Tauri 2016; Razack 2015). It is important not to think of settler colonialism as merely a set of past events or a political context, but rather as a framework for better understanding the past and current social mechanisms and conditions which have shaped – and continue to shape – the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Accordingly, we use settler colonialism as a theoretical lens through which to understand the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system broadly, and Indigenous-police relations, in particular. Specifically, we examine how settler colonialism can shed light on Indigenous-police relations and the various circumstances by which they may come into contact. We also review some of the key features within the broader literature on police-citizen interactions and how they connect to our study.

Indigenous Peoples and Settler Colonialism in Canada

Settler colonialism is characterized by an ongoing project of colonization, whereby the goal is to eliminate and replace the Indigenous population with a sovereign settler collective (Palmater 2014; Razack 2015; Veracini 2010; Wolfe 2006). Settler colonial relations are fueled by a belief that inhabitants are either civilized, as with the settler collective, or inherently primitive, degraded and savage as with Canada’s Indigenous populations (Veracini 2010). In the Canadian context, failed settler colonial policies which aimed to suppress and assimilate Indigenous populations have left behind a trail of pain, suffering and disadvantage which has been transmitted from one generation of Indigenous peoples to the next. These hardships and experiences have been associated with involvement in the criminal justice system not only as perpetrators, but also as victims (Boyce 2016).

Indeed, throughout the history of what is now recognized as Canada, settlers have utilized numerous strategies for the elimination (or transfer) of Indigenous peoples, with efforts becoming more systematized following Confederation in 1867. Whether through the dispossession of lands, the criminalization of spiritual practices, the attempted assimilation (and often abuse) of Indigenous children in residential schools or the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their family and into child welfare services, the result has generally been a devastation of Indigenous cultural traditions and sense of belonging (on an aggregate level), and experiences of physical, sexual, psychological, spiritual and financial harm (on an individual level). Furthermore, given the Canadian settler government’s general disregard for Indigenous peoples, former residential school students (or survivors) and Indigenous peoples, in general, are more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to experience lower educational attainment and lower income levels, higher rates of unemployment (Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 2015), and to experience mental health issues and substance abuse, as well as homelessness (Boyce 2016).

The harm caused by these aforementioned settler policies continues to be felt by Indigenous communities to this day. In particular, the residential school experience has had detrimental, intergenerational effects on Indigenous peoples’ health – both psychologically and physically. Psychologically, children suffered as a result of the residential schooling system’s constant and pervasive attack on and denigration of Indigenous cultures, languages and spirituality (TRC 2015). Physical and sexual abuse was widespread, with nearly 38,000 claims of sexual and serious physical abuse submitted as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement’s (IRSSA) Independent Assessment Process (TRC 2015).4 In response to these traumas, many survivors resorted to harmful coping mechanisms, including the use of alcohol and drugs as a means of numbing their pain (TRC 2015). Indeed, Indigenous persons are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to engage in binge drinking and drug use (Boyce 2016). Indigenous peoples are also more likely to report a mental health condition (Boyce 2016) which could have conceivably been triggered or otherwise exacerbated by experiences of victimization and/or by substance abuse. Ultimately, these failed settler efforts to eliminate the Indigenous population have, and continue to hinder, the ability of many survivors and their families to function in either the settler society or in their own Indigenous communities (TRC 2015).

Indigenous Peoples’ Encounters with the Police in Canada

The profound socio-economic marginalization that many Indigenous peoples experience as a result of settler colonialism may be setting the stage for more frequent police interventions. Indeed, the greater occurrence within the Indigenous population of intergenerational trauma, sexual and physical abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment and lower educational attainment means that they are significantly more likely than non-Indigenous people to present what are commonly considered criminogenic needs, or risk factors, for criminal activity and victimization (e.g., Boyce 2016; Hsieh and Pugh 1993; LaPrairie 1994, 2002; LaPrairie and Stenning 2003). Hence Canada’s settler colonial policies may be directly or indirectly affecting the frequency with which Indigenous peoples are coming into contact with the police for a multitude of reasons (e.g., as a suspect or perpetrator, as a victim or as a witness to a crime, or as a result of one’s own mental health and/or substance abuse issues, or those of a family member), many of which will lead to further entanglement with the justice system.

Settler colonial attitudes among police may also be contributing to encounters between Indigenous peoples and the police. Historically, the police enforced laws that were designed to control and ultimately eliminate Indigenous peoples through forced assimilation, dislocation and deprivation. These practices included the implementation of a pass system to limit the freedom of movement and the gathering of Indigenous peoples, the criminalization of cultural and spiritual practices, and the forceful removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities in order to deliver them to residential schools against their will (Alberton et al. 2019; Comack 2012; Monchalin 2016; Razack 2015; Nettelbeck and Smandych 2010; TRC 2015). While the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the police is different today, numerous alleged and substantiated incidents of racism and discriminatory acts by the police have come to light (Comack 2012; McGillivray and Comaskey 2000; NIMMIWG 2019; Ontario Human Right Commission 2017; Razack 2015; Sinclair 2018). Comack (2012) suggests that, despite the tendency to dismiss allegations of racist and discriminatory encounters between the police and Indigenous peoples, there are too many reports of abuse, violence, disrespect, and unfair treatment for them to be ignored or discounted.

If one acknowledges that systemic racism exists within Canadian policing, one might therefore expect to see such racism reflected in the prevalence of Indigenous peoples’ contact with the police. Scholars argue that Indigenous communities are faced with both over-policing and under-policing (Monchalin 2016; Rudin 2006). The former is the practice of disproportionately imposing higher levels of policing on certain groups or areas, while the latter is the practice of providing inferior, lower quality services such that the requests and needs of communities for police assistance are often dismissed (Rudin 2006).

Given the ways in which the police have been utilized historically to repress Indigenous cultures and promote assimilation, it may not be surprising that Indigenous peoples appear to be over-policed today. The apparent over-policing of Indigenous peoples in Canada may be related to negative stereotypes rooted in settler colonial attitudes regarding the inferiority of Indigenous peoples. Stereotypes such as the “uncivilized savage” and the “drunken Indian” may lead to the belief that Indigenous peoples are more likely to engage in criminal activity or are otherwise more deserving of criminal justice intervention. Police may feel that intervening with Indigenous peoples will somehow help to promote order, or that intervention is necessary in order to protect members of the dominant society from what they deem to be Indigenous peoples’ uncivilized behaviour. Any over-policing of Indigenous peoples may result in these populations being more likely than non-Indigenous people to come into contact with the police, which may in turn lead to over-representation in the courts and prisons. This may be particularly true for contact as a result of being arrested or for mental health and / or substance abuse issues if the disorderly behaviour of Indigenous peoples is more likely to be viewed by the general public and / or the police as threatening and requiring police intervention.

In terms of under-policing, Rudin (2006) suggests that Indigenous peoples may be viewed by some as less-worthy victims than those of the dominant culture. This is significant for many Indigenous communities because their members are over-represented not only as offenders, but also as victims of crime (Boyce 2016; Chartrand and McKay 2006; Perreault 2011). The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG) (2019) highlights inappropriate actions taken by police and, at times, the complete lack of response from police services following calls for assistance. In particular, this report details the common experience of family members and friends who recount being dismissed and ignored by the police when reporting incidents involving the physical and sexual victimization of Indigenous women and girls. Although Indigenous peoples are over-represented as victims of crime, the apparent under-policing of this population would suggest that Indigenous peoples who are victims do not always receive appropriate assistance from the police. Although prevalence of police contact, as a result of victimization among Indigenous peoples, is likely to be greater than that of non-Indigenous people simply as a reflection of this population’s over-victimization, it may be that rates of this type of police contact would be even higher if under-policing was not an issue.

Given the sometimes unwelcome or hostile encounters between the police and Indigenous peoples, there appears to be a significant effect on their trust in the police (Alberton et al. 2019; Cao 2014; Ren et al. 2005; Sprott and Doob 2009). For instance, a recent study by Alberton et al. (2019) examines the impact of involuntary contacts with the police on Indigenous peoples’ confidence in the police. Results from the study suggest that Indigenous peoples are significantly more likely than white Canadians to report experiencing involuntary contact with the police, and particularly likely to report two or more types of involuntary police contact in the preceding 12 months (including traffic stop, as a witness to crime, as a result of an individual’s own mental health or substance abuse, or as a result of a loved one’s mental health or substance abuse). Accordingly, the authors found that having experienced involuntary contacts with the police is associated with lower levels of confidence in the police for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents. Other studies similarly found that self-identification as Indigenous was significantly associated with decreasing levels of confidence in the police (Cao 2014) and that this difference could be explained by the fact that Indigenous peoples generally view the police as treating people unfairly and disregarding the social well-being of communities (David 2019). Ultimately, such negative views of the police could impact Indigenous peoples’ willingness to interact with the police voluntarily, such as in the case of victimization reporting.

Despite potentially strained relations and distrust toward the police, some Indigenous communities may nevertheless resort to police reporting due to a lack of options. Indeed, higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage may contribute to elevated levels of police contact when marginalized communities have limited resources available to them to effectively address social problems at their source or through other means (Harding 1991; Zimmerman 1992). Reiss (1971) argues that marginalized groups who have limited access to resources and community support systems may resort to police reporting out of necessity, with few or no other options for assistance available. This may be the case in some Indigenous communities, for whom the confluence of socio-economic disadvantage, prejudice and forced dependency on the state – all symptoms of settler colonialism – may lead individuals to feel they have few options but to contact police for assistance when someone is victimized or experiencing behavioural health challenges. For instance, limited access to social and health services may partially explain the frequency with which police intervene during mental health incidents (Cardinal and Laberge 1999; Boyd and Kerr 2016). This scarcity of resources is most common in rural and remote Indigenous communities, which also tend to have elevated rates of mental illness and suicide (Kielland and Simeone 2014). A lack of (culturally appropriate) social support in Indigenous communities facing issues such as mental illness, trauma and substance abuse may thus potentially increase the probability of Indigenous peoples coming into contact with the police for behavioural health-related reasons. Ultimately, settler colonialism may contribute to Indigenous peoples’ contacts with the police in many ways, whether through socio-economic disadvantage and risk factors resulting from settler policies, through discriminatory settler policing practices and/or limited social resources available in some Indigenous communities. Indeed, understanding how settler colonial policies have affected Indigenous peoples and the police can allow for a more nuanced application of more general theories and how they make sense of Indigenous peoples’ contact with the police.

Connection with the Broader Literature on Citizens’ Contacts with the Police

There is a rich literature on citizens’ contacts with the police, a large portion of which focuses on the role of race and ethnicity in these encounters. Generally, these mostly international studies, largely from Western nations, suggest that citizens who belong to racial minority groups are more likely to have encounters with the police compared to the rest of the population (e.g., Engel and Calnon 2004; Engel, Calnon, and Bernard 2002; Foster and Jacobs 2019; Lundman and Kaufman 2003; Rice and White 2010). Many studies examining the role of race and ethnicity in police contacts have generally clustered around two forms of encounter: traffic stops and pedestrian stops. These studies seek to examine the possibility of discriminatory practices by the police (e.g., racial profiling). While certainly relevant, limiting studies to these two approaches neglects other forms and contexts of contact with the police, which may also affect the lives of racialized and ethnic minority groups (e.g., as victims, as witnesses, because of mental health-related issues). Accordingly, it is essential to examine different types of contact with the police as each unique form of police interaction may be reflective of different policing practices.

Several theories can help to make sense of the differential ways in which policing is carried out from one community to the next. For instance, conflict theories and minority threat theories suggest that the state exerts social control in a way that maintains power for majority groups, while suppressing the perceived threats that minority groups pose to the prevailing social order (Blalock 1967; Quinney 1970). Thus, marginalized groups, such as racial minority groups, are policed differently and more aggressively than other segments of the population (Barkan and Cohn 2005; Blalock 1967; Kent and Carmichael 2014). Differential policing may also be partially explained through social disorganization theories. These theories suggest that crime rates are highest in communities with significant physical and social disorder (e.g., vandalism, property damage, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse) and limited collective efficacy (i.e., weak social cohesion and limited informal social control from members of the community) – typically the truly disadvantaged in the inner-city areas of large urban centers (Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush 2001; Wilson 1987). Police, then, target these high-crime, high-violence areas, thereby increasing the likelihood of police encounters in these neighbourhoods (Kochel and Weisburd 2019; Sampson and Bartusch 1998).

Conflict and social disorganization theories appear to offer a heuristic, or superficial explanation for Indigenous peoples’ potentially disproportionate contact with police. Within the context of social disorganization theories, police contact may be prevalent in some Indigenous communities as a result of disproportionate socio-economic difficulties, which are, in turn, associated with higher levels of crime and violence. Similarly, conflict theory may explain disproportionate Indigenous-police contact as the state exerting itself over marginalized Indigenous communities, in order to maintain its control. However, these theories fall short in that they fail to account for the unique historical, social, and political context which has contributed to Indigenous peoples being more likely to experience deep-seated socio-demographic marginalization and to be distrusted by those in power. Hence, we argue that settler colonialism is a more useful theoretical lens through which to understand the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian criminal justice system broadly, and Indigenous-police relations, in particular. Rather than offer a competing explanation to social disorganization and conflict theories, settler colonialism is, in fact, a complementary framework. That is, settler colonialism considers the underlying political and social mechanisms specific to Indigenous peoples’ experiences in Canadian society and the conditions which have contributed to their socio-economic challenges and marginalization.

In sum, given the logic of settler colonialism and its ongoing effects, we hypothesize that Indigenous peoples will be more likely to encounter the police in various contexts compared to non-Indigenous people. The convergence of criminogenic needs, the potential for discriminatory practices and the scarcity of non-police support, produces a situation which Indigenous peoples may be more likely to come into contact with the police for a multitude of reasons (e.g., as a suspect or perpetrator, as a victim or as a witness to crime, or as a result of one’s own mental health and/or substance abuse issues, or those of a family member). Admittedly, the distrust that many Indigenous peoples feel toward the police may counteract some of these circumstances, rendering them unwilling to voluntarily initiate police contact. Nevertheless, it is possible that the deep-seated social disadvantage and prejudice experienced by many Indigenous peoples may override this reluctance and lead to more frequent police encounters.

Sample

This article uses data from the Canadian General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization collected in 2014. The GSS collects information on experienced victimization and perceptions and contacts with the criminal justice system. This is a nationally representative survey of citizens aged 15 and over living in private households (excluding institutions such as hospitals and correctional facilities). In total, 35,167 people answered the survey, a response rate of about 50%.5 Missing data (i.e., non-response) across the selected variables is under 10% and present no discernable patterns. The data were accessed through the Canadian Research Data Centres Network (CRDCN).6 Hence, unlike with the publicly accessible dataset which has been used in other studies examining the relationship between the police and Indigenous peoples (e.g., Alberton et al. 2019; Cao 2014), we were able to analyze data from both the provinces and the territories. This is an important contribution of the study, given that a significant segment of the Indigenous population, particularly the Inuit population, lives in the territories (Statistics Canada 2017).

Sample Weighting

Statistics Canada requires that data accessed through the CRDCN be weighted in order to account for the sampling design. Each respondent is given a sampling weight equal to the inverse of the probability of being selected. This brings our analysis sample from 35,167 to 29,516,669 respondents. As it pertains to the multivariate models presented below, the weights were applied using the sampling weight method available through the statistical package Stata. This method accounts for the relative weight of each respondent while keeping an analysis sample equal to the original sample.

Measures

Contacts with the police. As part of the GSS, respondents were asked whether they had contact with the police (1 = yes; 0 = no) during the 12 months preceding the survey for various reasons which we conceptualize as representing three types of encounters: contacts with the police for enforcement reasons, which include (a) traffic violation and (b) being arrested; contacts with the police for non-enforcement reasons, which include being (c) witness to a crime and (d) victim of a crime7, and contacts with the police for behavioural health-reasons, which include encounters due to (e) one’s own emotional, mental and/or alcohol/drug use problem and (f) a family member’s emotional, mental and/or drug/alcohol problem. The GSS also contains data on encounters with the police for a public information session and a residual category for contacts with the police for “other reasons”. However, we suggest that the former does not reflect an involvement with the criminal justice system that would affect the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system. The latter lacks detail which would allow for an appropriate interpretation of the data in terms of its potential meaning for the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system. Accordingly, these categories were excluded from the analysis.

Indigenous Self-Identification. Respondents were asked to self-identify according to the following question: “Are you an Aboriginal person, that is, First Nations, Métis or Inuk (Inuit)? First Nations includes Status and Non-Status Indians” (1 = Indigenous; 0 = non-Indigenous). Respondents born outside of Canada were not asked the question. They were coded as “non-Indigenous.”

Socio-demographic covariates. Our analysis will adjust for the following variables: the sex of the respondent (1 = male; 0 = female), the age of the respondent, the highest degree earned by the respondent (1 = less than high school diploma or its equivalent; 2 = high school diploma/high school equivalency; 3 = trade certificate or diploma, college, CEGEP and other non-university certificate or diploma; 4 = university certificate or diploma below the bachelor’s level; 5 = bachelor’s degree; 6 = university certificate, diploma/degree above bachelor’s), the main employment status of the respondent over the twelve months preceding the survey (1 = employed; 2 = unemployed; 3 = student; 4 = other (e.g., retired, caring for a family member, stay at home parent) and the area of residence of respondent (1 = urban; 0 = rural).

Analytical Strategy

Analyses were conducted by performing logistic regression models to assess the likelihood of Indigenous persons encountering the police for each of the six reasons listed above. We opted for regression models over simple cross-tabulations in order to account for the possible effect of socio-demographic factors and examine the unique effect of Indigeneity, as literature suggests that young males from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly at risk of encountering the police (Engen, Steen, and Bridges 2002; Fitzgerald and Carrington 2011; Kakar 2006; Wortley and Owusu-Bempah 2011). Our sample demographics appear to be in line with this literature, as Table 1 demonstrates that Indigenous respondents are, on average, younger men with a lower level of educational attainment compared to non-Indigenous respondents. We then adjusted for the sex, age, educational attainment level, employment status and area of residence of respondents. The results are presented using odds ratios, thus speaking to the relative chance of an Indigenous person encountering the police compared to a non-Indigenous person. Predicted probabilities were also derived to assess the actual probability of encountering the police for each given reason.

Table

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

Indigenous
Non-Indigenous
Percentage/Mean SD Weighted N Percentage/Mean SD Weighted N
Contact with the police (1 = Yes)
 Traffic stop 11.4% 976,818 12.6% 28,364,947
 Being arrested 3.2% 976,818 0.8% 28,381,630
 Victim of a crime 13.1% 976,163 7.2% 28,354,074
 Witness to a crime 11.3% 976,040 5.1% 28,368,225
 Personal mental health or alcohol/drug related problems 3.5% 976,709 0.8% 28,383,629
 Family member’s mental health or alcohol/drug related problems 7.9% 975,630 2.4% 28,374,261
Self-Identification Status
 Indigenous (1 = Yes) 3.3% 29,427,830
 Non-Indigenous (1 = Yes) 96.7% 29,427,830
Socio-demographic Covariates
 Sex (1 = Male) 52.0% 976,818 49.3% 28,451,012
 Age 41.21 17.84 976,818 46.15 18.67 28,451,012
 Educational Attainment 2.70 1.64 970,530 3.63 1.96 27,982,331
 Employment Status
  Employed 56.5% 972,861 57.5% 28,185,388
  Unemployed 3.8% 972,861 1.5% 28,185,388
  Student 13.5% 972,861 12.2% 28,185,388
  Other 26.2% 972,861 28.8% 28,185,388
 Residence (1 = Urban) 62.9% 976,818 84.6% 28,451,012

Table 2 summarizes the results of all six logistic regression models focusing on the key indicator of Indigeneity. Figure 1 provides the corresponding predicted probabilities. All models are statistically significant with the R2 values suggesting a weak explanatory power ranging from 0.02 to 0.10. With the exception of traffic stops, Indigenous respondents were more likely than non-Indigenous respondents to have at least one contact with the police in the twelve months preceding the survey for each of the reasons included in this study. While these results are statistically significant, it must be noted that the confidence intervals (95%) are rather large, especially in the case of contacts with the police for being arrested and for those due to an individual’s behavioural health-related problems. This may be partially explained by the fact that these two types of encounters are fairly rare events in the broader population (see Table 1), thus leading to greater statistical uncertainty.8 Nevertheless, even when examining the lower end of the confidence intervals, Indigenous respondents remain significantly more likely to come into contact with the police compared to non-Indigenous respondents (i.e., odds ratios between 1.46 and 2.13 with the exception of traffic stops).

Table

Table 2. Logistic Regression – Reason for Contact with the Police during the Twelve Months Preceding the Survey

Table 2. Logistic Regression – Reason for Contact with the Police during the Twelve Months Preceding the Survey

Dependent Variables: Reason for a contact with the police Self-reported Indigenous status (1 = Indigenous)
Model Statistics
O.R. S.E. Sig. 95% CI R2
Enforcement Reasons
 a. Traffic stop 0.84 0.13 0.62 1.13 0.04
 b. Being arrested 2.89 0.88 *** 1.60 5.25 0.10
Non-Enforcement Reasons
 c. Victim of a crime 1.94 0.28 *** 1.46 2.57 0.02
 d. Witness to a crime 2.16 0.36 *** 1.56 2.98 0.03
Behavioural Health Reasons
 e. Personal mental health or alcohol/drug related problems 2.87 0.84 *** 1.62 5.09 0.10
 f. Family member’s mental health or alcohol/drug related problems 3.03 0.55 *** 2.13 4.32 0.03

*p < 0.05,

**p < 0.01,

***p < 0.001

Note: Each reason for contact with the police was assessed as a unique logistic regression model. The models adjust for sex, age, educational attainment, employment status, and area of residence. Chi-square tests suggest that all models are statistically significant.

Figure 1. Predicted Probability – Reason for Contact with the Police During the Twelve Months Preceding the Survey by Self-Reported Indigenous Status

n.s.: Not statistically significant (p > 0.05)

Notes: The predicted probabilities were generated for an employed man of average age with an average educational attainment level living in an urban area.

Specifically, adjusting for sex, age, educational attainment level, employment status and area of residence, Indigenous respondents were 2.89 times more likely to encounter the police compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts (OR = 2.89; SE = 0.88; 95% CI = 1.60 and 5.25). On an absolute scale, this suggests that for an employed Indigenous man of average age with an average educational attainment level living in an urban area, the predicted probability of encountering the police for being arrested is 2.30% compared to 0.81% for a comparable non-Indigenous man. These conditions were selected to represent the population most at risk of encountering the police (i.e., generally men) without inflating the predicted probabilities by including risk factors such as being younger or unemployed. Accordingly, we note that, despite Indigenous peoples being more likely to experience this type of encounter, it remains a relatively uncommon event within the broader population. In the case of traffic stops, the results are inconclusive as they were not statistically significant.

In terms of contacts with the police for non-enforcement reasons, the results (adjusting for the same covariates) suggest that Indigenous respondents are 1.94 times more likely to have a contact with the police as a victim of a crime (OR = 1.94; SE = 0.28; 95% CI = 1.46 and 2.57) and 2.16 times more likely to encounter the police as a witness to a crime (OR = 1.94; SE = 0.28; 95% CI = 1.46 and 2.57) compared to non-Indigenous respondents. Accordingly, using the same conditions detailed above, Indigenous respondents have a 13.63% predicted probability of encountering the police as a victim of crime and a 10.30% predicted probability of having at least one contact with the police as a witness to a crime. Comparatively, non-Indigenous respondents have a 7.53% and 5.05% predicted probability of experiencing these types of encounters, respectively.

In terms of contacts with the police for behavioural health reasons, the odds of coming into contact with the police because of one’s own mental health or alcohol/drug related issues is 2.87 times greater for Indigenous respondents, compared to non-Indigenous respondents (OR = 2.87; SE = 0.84; 95% CI = 1.62 and 5.09). These odds are slightly greater when it comes to encounters with the police for a family member’s mental health or alcohol/drug related issues (OR = 3.03; SE = 0.55; 95% CI = 2.13 and 4.32). Accordingly, the predicted probability of encountering the police for one’s own behavioural health-related problems is 1.40% for Indigenous respondents compared to 0.49% for non-Indigenous respondents. When it comes to a family member’s behavioural health-related problems, these predicted probabilities increase to 5.96% and 2.05%, respectively.

This article emerges in the context of Indigenous peoples’ long-standing over-representation in the Canadian criminal justice system – despite decades of awareness and numerous attempts to address the issue. Although there is a large (and growing) scholarship on the issue, these studies have focused almost exclusively on the involvement of Indigenous peoples in correctional services. These studies neglect the role of other criminal justice actors in the process that leads Indigenous peoples to become over-represented in correctional facilities. Furthermore, the generally narrow focus on correctional services ignores other types of criminal justice involvement that do not necessarily lead to punitive outcomes (e.g., witnessing a crime, being the victim of a crime). In light of this gap in the literature, this article examines the prevalence of self-reported contacts with the police for Indigenous peoples in Canada (compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts).

Results suggest that Indigenous peoples experience contact with the police in greater proportion compared to the rest of the Canadian population. Notably, Indigenous peoples have a greater probability of encountering the police as a result of being arrested, even when adjusting for socio-demographic covariates such as educational attainment and employment. Indigenous peoples’ greater likelihood of police contact as a result of arrest is consistent with the evidence that this population is over-represented throughout the criminal justice process. This article was conducted by adjusting for the sex, age, educational attainment level, employment status and area of residence of respondent to assess the unique effect of being Indigenous on the likelihood of encountering the police. However, if we consider that Indigenous populations have a greater likelihood of experiencing socio-economic marginalization, as a result of settler colonial policies and practices, the reported probability of these types of police encounters is likely to be compounded based on their socio-economic realities.

Even though Indigenous peoples are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to experience police contact as a result of arrest, it is nevertheless important to note that this type of contact is uncommon overall for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In fact, both Indigenous and (to a lesser extent) non-Indigenous people are considerably more likely to have police contact as a victim of, or witness to, crime than they are to be arrested (or for behavioural health reasons). To illustrate, if we compare the predicted probabilities of contact for our hypothetical employed Indigenous man of average age with an average educational attainment level living in an urban area, this individual would be nearly six times more likely to have contact as a victim, and roughly four and a half times more likely to have contact as a witness, compared to contact as a result of arrest. The comparative frequency of police contact as a victim or witness to crime (versus contact for arrest) re-enforces the need to examine not only the rare occurrence of police contact for arrest, but also the varied types of (more common) police contact that shape Indigenous-police relations, and contribute to a broader understanding of the ways in which Indigenous peoples may be over-represented in criminal justice processes.

Indigenous peoples are not only more likely to have contact with the police as a victim of crime and as a witness than they are as a result of arrest, they are also more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to have these types of contact. It may not be surprising that Indigenous peoples experience a higher proportion of contact with the police for these reasons compared to non-Indigenous individuals, given that data suggest that Indigenous peoples are more likely to be a victim of the eight types9 of crime measured by the GSS (Boyce 2016; Perreault 2011). Although Indigenous peoples are typically less likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to report their own victimization to the police (Boyce 2016; Chartrand and McKay 2006), it is important to note that Indigenous peoples may come into contact with the police as a victim without personally reporting their victimization. Indeed, victimization often comes to the attention of the police as a result of witness reporting (Perreault 2015), or more simply through the police’s own surveillance, particularly if the incident takes place publicly (rather than within a private dwelling) or in high-visibility areas. Furthermore, it is possible that the scale of this population’s victimization may partially explain how they are, nevertheless, more likely than non-Indigenous people to report experiencing police contact as a result of victimization. Although there is less research on Indigenous peoples as witnesses to crimes, this heightened prevalence may be explained, in part, by their elevated rates of victimization and arrest. Particularly when one considers the data which suggests that violence perpetrated against Indigenous peoples is likely to have been committed by someone known to the victim (i.e., relatives, friends, neighbours, acquaintances) (Brzozowski, Taylor-Butts, and Johnson 2006) and, as such, is often occurring within Indigenous communities, it would make sense that Indigenous peoples in these communities may also be more likely to report witnessing crimes than non-Indigenous people.

Finally, results from this article suggest that Indigenous peoples are also more likely than non-Indigenous people to report having contact with the police for behavioural health reasons, namely as a result of personal mental, emotional, drug and/or alcohol problems, or because of a family member’s mental, emotional, drug and/or alcohol problems. These findings may be partially explained – yet again – by an understanding of the ways in which settler colonial policies have produced intergenerational harms within Indigenous communities. Indeed, the physical, sexual, psychological, and spiritual harms perpetrated against Indigenous populations have led some individuals to resort to drug and/or alcohol use to cope with these negative experiences. Furthermore, these harms and negative experiences may have conceivably triggered mental health problems or otherwise caused emotional distress. This context may then partially account for Indigenous peoples’ disproportionate contact with the police as a result of mental health or substance issues.

While it is clear that Indigenous peoples have a greater risk of contact with the police than do non-Indigenous people, the results do not speak to the legitimacy of these encounters. Hence, we must use caution when interpreting these results. Most qualitative studies examining Indigenous peoples’ interactions with the police suggest that Indigenous peoples can and do experience over-policing and discriminatory police encounters (e.g., Comack 2012; Razack 2015; Rudin 2006; Sinclair 2018). Should such cases exist in our sample, they might be considered unwarranted or illegitimate interventions. On the other hand, given that socio-economic disadvantages which stem from settler colonial processes are associated with greater levels of criminal behaviour and victimization, as well as the possibility that some Indigenous communities have limited non-police resources, these elevated rates of contact may represent legitimate interventions. Hence, one limitation of this study is the inability to explore the circumstances surrounding the reported encounters with the police. Specifically, this study does not explore the underlying reasons for police contact – for instance, who (if anyone) contacted the police to initiate the encounter, the reasons for contacting the police, or whether other efforts were made to address the presenting issue prior to police contact. Similarly, it is important to note that police contact, as measured by the GSS, includes not only contact with conventional police services, but also contact with First Nations police services. Indeed, these data alone cannot necessarily be taken as evidence of over-policing. Furthermore, another limitation of this study is the inability to determine the total number of encounters experienced by respondents. While it is likely that some respondents have had numerous, repeated contact with the police over a 12-month period, the available data do not allow for such analyses.

While this article addresses the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada, the results may be generalizable to other contexts. Although Indigenous peoples across the globe have different cultures, traditions, practices, languages, dialects, and histories, they do share the common experience of settler colonial rule over themselves and their land. In most cases, the police have been instrumental to the settler colonial agenda and continue to play a prevalent role in the lives of Indigenous communities (e.g., Sarre 2005; Cunneen 2001; Nettelbeck and Smandych 2010; Perry 2009; Redner-Vera and Galeste 2015). In particular, Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, such as Australia, also experience complex relations with their respective criminal justice systems including over-representation within such systems.

In light of this article’s findings that Indigenous peoples appear to be more likely than other Canadians to experience nearly every type of police contact, further research is clearly warranted. However, data constraints mean that there are limited options for the empirical examination of police interactions with Indigenous peoples (as well as other ethnic or racialized minorities). In Canada, police-reported crime data are collected by Statistics Canada through the Uniform Crime Reporting survey. Although a variable on the Indigenous identity of people involved in criminal incidents is present, many police services have refused to provide this information (see Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) 2010; Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2005) with the exception of homicide data (see Miladinovic and Mulligan 2015; CACP 2015). Indeed, Millar and Owusu-Bempah (2011) note that, in 2009, most Canadian police services reported the race of the accused and/or victim in less than 20% of cases, and that almost 20% of Canadian police services had an official policy against reporting the Indigenous status of accused persons and victims. This refusal to provide such critical information has been a significant obstacle to understanding and developing evidence-based solutions to this serious problem. Indeed, in order to understand the issue of the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system, we cannot simply rely on correctional data – rather, every stage of the criminal justice process must be explored. Recently, the CACP and Statistics Canada seem to have acknowledged the importance of these data when they announced that they will begin the process of collecting data on Indigenous and ethno-cultural groups for both accused persons and victims (Statistics Canada 2020). Ultimately, given the ways in which the Canadian government has previously collected data on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of control and elimination, it will be important that such data collection is done in consultation with and for the benefit of Indigenous and racialized communities.

Overall, study findings broaden our understanding of the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system beyond the correctional context. Indeed, it is important to consider the role that other legal actors play in contributing to this crisis. Specifically, the results suggest that examining police encounters may provide important clues to better understanding the underlying mechanisms which have helped to produce Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system more broadly. Indigenous peoples appear to be over-represented not only at the final stage of the criminal justice process – that is, in admissions to correctional facilities – but also at the much earlier and highly influential stage of initial police contact. Greater police contact may have serious and far-reaching consequences for Indigenous peoples who may then be at heightened risk of being arrested, charged, and convicted, ultimately contributing to over-representation in later stages of the criminal justice process. This article further highlights the need to broaden our understanding of the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system to include other forms of involvement which do not necessarily lead to criminalization – such as being a victim or a witness, as well as being in contact with the police to ensure the well-being of a family member or oneself. Indeed, even in cases when police contact occurs for reasons other than the respondent’s arrest, the heightened frequency with which Indigenous peoples interact with police translates to increased observation and surveillance and, potentially, puts them at risk of being apprehended for any criminal behaviour which might have otherwise gone unnoticed. While the settler colonialism framework may not provide any clear solutions for addressing the issue of over-representation, understanding the ways in which these processes have produced this phenomenon is essential if we are to effectively address this increasingly dire situation.

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank Jason Carmichael and Andrew Bene for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper as well as the anonymous reviewers for their feedback.

Notes

1 The term “Indigenous peoples” (or sometimes “Aboriginal peoples”) refers to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. It should be noted that Indigenous peoples are not a homogenous group. There are dozens of different Nations and ethno-cultural groups. We acknowledge that while discussed as a group, each has its own history, language, culture, traditions, and lived experiences. Accordingly, we propose to understand the term Indigenous peoples as the gathering of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, not because they form a homogenous group, but because they share a history in regard to settlers and colonialism.

2 Indigenous identity information for self-reported contacts with the police and the courts became available with the 2009 cycle of the Canadian General Social Survey. However, police-reported and court-reported data on Indigenous identity are still unavailable.

3 For instance, although mental health-related police interactions are not inherently a criminal justice matter, given the sometimes tense and challenging nature of these encounters there is the potential for escalation (i.e., arrest and/or use of force).

4 As part of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) – an agreement made in response to the largest class action lawsuit in Canada’s history – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (2015) was established for the purpose of conducting an inquiry into the Canadian residential school system. The Independent Assessment Process (IAP) is a claimant-centered adjudicative process that was established through the IRSSA to financially compensate former residential school students for serious sexual and physical abuses experienced in these schools (TRC 2015).

5 For further information about the survey, see Statistics Canada (2016).

6 This research was supported by funds to the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and Statistics Canada. Although the research and analyses are based on data from Statistics Canada, the opinions expressed do not represent the views of Statistics Canada.

7 Information on this type of contact with the police was derived from data on experienced victimization found in the incident file of the General Social Survey (GSS).

8 The inferences resulting from any analyses are always model-dependent (e.g., on sample size, selected variables). Accordingly, there is a potential issue associated with modelling rare events using logistic regression (i.e., contacts with the police for being arrested and behavioural health reasons). In small sample sizes, this method is vulnerable to underestimating the probability of events. However, simulation studies suggest that with a sufficiently large sample size this potential bias can be minimized to an extent where correcting estimations for rare events becomes insignificant (Bergtold, Yeager, and Featherstone 2018; King and Zeng 2001). Given these studies, we determine that the GSS sample size exceeds the threshold for when bias corrections are warranted. We are, therefore, comfortable with the robustness of our results given the parameters of our study.

9 The General Social Survey examines the following eight types of criminal victimization: assault, sexual assault, robbery, theft of personal property, breaking and entering, motor vehicle theft, theft of household property, and vandalism.

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