Barriers to Access to Justice for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Women

Racism and colonialism – including the use of police and the legal system to remove children from families into the child welfare system and residential schools – have created unique barriers to justice for Aboriginal women in Canada.

Aboriginal women make up less than 6% of Canada’s female population but one-third of women in federal prisons. 90% of Aboriginal women in federal prisons report a history of physical abuse and 61% a history of sexual abuse.

First Nation, Métis and Inuit women and girls are massively over-represented in Canada’s prison population, at times representing 100% of women in federal solitary confinement in Canada. Aboriginal overrepresentation in prison has been called “injustice personified” by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and a “crisis in the criminal justice system” by Supreme Court of Canada.

While Aboriginal people are over-policed, in that they are arrested and detained under circumstances in which non-Aboriginal people may not be, they are also under-policed in that the police are not available for prevention and supportive police services. In a tragic example of police unresponsiveness, in February 2000, Corrine McKeowen and Doreen Leclair were stabbed to death after five desperate calls for help were ignored by police.

Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies,
Aboriginal Women Fact Sheet 2010

From failure to adequately investigate the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women – see the case of Helen Betty Osborne, Manitoba’s resulting Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit project, among much other documentation – to the high rates of Aboriginal children apprehended and in the custody of child welfare authorities, the police and court systems have been as likely to block access to justice for Aboriginal women as to foster it.

The Building Service Capacity training session discussions of barriers to access to justice for First Nation, Métis and Inuit women identified a well-founded mistrust of police and the Canadian legal system generated by historical legacies and current lived experience. In addition to fear and distrust of the legal system, numerous other barriers to access to justice were identified, including lack of access to affordable legal services and representation as well as systemic barriers such as geographic or social isolation, limited transportation, and shortages of housing, employment, and mental health and addictions treatment. Discussions also included internal challenges that are legacies of colonialism, including patriarchy and family and political relationships in small communities that can make it difficult for women experiencing violence to access legal and other supports or to leave the relationship.

Correctional Services Canada describes an “average” Aboriginal woman in prison as 27, with limited education, unemployed at the time of arrest and a sole support mother of two to three children.

Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies,
Aboriginal Women Fact Sheet 2010

Social indicators also point to barriers to accessing justice faced by First Nation, Métis and Inuit women regardless of location. Poverty and the impacts of poverty restrict access to legal assistance, and First Nation, Métis and Inuit women seeking services and support from agencies not operated by Aboriginal communities often face a lack of understanding of their culture as well as both individual and systemic institutional racism.

Domestic Violence Experienced by Aboriginal Women Context and Considerations

Adapted from the Learning Objectives and Overview introductory presentation at Building Service Capacity Training Sessions

Abuse in intimate partner relationships is experienced by all women in Canada, regardless of social location. It crosses all lines: age, class, race, religion, ability, education, income, social positions of power, immigration status, geographic location (urban/rural).

  • Important and unique factors in the context of Aboriginal women dealing with domestic violence that inform every discussion in this four day training session include:
    • history and continued context of colonization and dispossession, of residential school abuse and loss/forced separation from families, communities, land, language, culture and traditional practices, including practices of parenting. These factors are a significant cause of intimate partner violence and create a legacy of mistrust for women reaching out to the Canadian state for assistance
    • interaction between domestic violence, addiction and poverty, which are the result of ongoing colonization and dispossession
    • culturally and/or community specific feelings of fear and shame and judgment from family members if women report abuse
    • concerns about protecting Aboriginal men (and women) from a discriminatory justice system in which Aboriginal men and women are over-criminalized and over-incarcerated
    • concerns about protecting Aboriginal children from removal from the home or community, particularly in a social context in which more Aboriginal children are currently in state care than were in residential schools
    • in some Aboriginal nations, as in all small communities, the close relationships cause unique problems, including that it is often men who hold positions of power, and manage distribution of resources like housing, jobs and social assistance. These men may be perpetrators of family violence or may be family members or friends of perpetrators. Similarly, the police officers and other sources of support may be friends or relatives of the perpetrator.

Key Resources for Aboriginal Women Victims of Violence:

Excerpt from Aboriginal Women and Family Violence

“They might not want to piss off all of his family in the community. The community is just 200-300 people, and if you piss off half of them it can cause you all kinds of grief. There’s probably more reasons not to call than there are to call.”

Government of Canada, 2008
The use of support resources and services on reserve, in communities and in urban centres such as health care professionals, crisis centres and shelters, hotlines, Friendship Centres and counselling services is compromised by:

  • low awareness of them
  • distance from the home community
  • lack of transportation
  • poor relationships with the police
  • lack of faith in the effectiveness of the resources
  • lack of privacy in communities and the consequent shame about accessing resources
  • complex relationships among the victim, the abuser, their families and other community members
  • the desire to keep the family intact
  • low self-esteem, self-blame
  • fear of reprisals from the violent man, his family or the community if police are contacted.

Why Abuse is Happening in Inuit Society

Excerpt from Making Our Shelters Strong Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association Handbook

Most Inuit agree that while there always has been some violence and abuse in Inuit society, it now is much more common than in the past. We feel that this is a hard problem to solve and there are few resources to help us. Some community leaders believe that violence has become so destructive to women, children, families and community health that it threatens the future of Inuit.

…violence and abuse can be tracked back to two main causes: uncontrollable changes to culture and tradition; and feelings of loss of control over the future. These can lead to mental trauma, the breakdown of families, alcohol and drug addictions and feelings of powerlessness. Fear, mistrust, abuse and denial result, creating a cycle of abuse in which Inuit can be both victims and abusers—a cycle that repeats itself with each new generation.

Analysis of the Foundations of Family Violence: Five Broad Themes

Excerpt from The Aboriginal Approach to Family Violence
By the Quebec Native Women’s Shelter Network

  1. Colonization, the Indian Act, Sedentarization and the Reduction of Territories
  2. The Residential Schools and the Role of Religion
  3. The Connection Between Social Problems, Normalized Violence and Silence
  4. Structural Violence, Racism and the Impact of [Laws that do not respond to the needs and realities of Aboriginal peoples]
  5. The Family, the Community and the Healing Process

federation_of_saskatchewan_indian_nationsBarriers to Justice: Poverty, Cultural Differences and Racism

Adapted from the presentation at Building Service Capacity by Special Investigations Unit

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations


    • Racism
    • Institutional Racism


The poverty rate for First Nation, Métis and Inuit women raising children on their own is over 70%.

When There’s No Place Like Home 2012

  • 70 cents: The amount Aboriginal people earn for every $1 non-Aboriginal people earned in 2006
  • Aboriginal median income: $18,962
  • Non-Aboriginal median income: $27,097
  • At this rate the income disparity will not disappear for 63 years
  • Income gap is not location-dependent: rural non-Aboriginal people make $2,000 more than urban Aboriginal people
  • 1/3 of Aboriginal children come from low income households.


  • Less Access to Justice
    • Cannot afford lawyers, have to use legal aid (if their legal issue qualifies)
    • Access to transportation is limited resulting in missed court dates
    • Less money to pay fines
    • Higher rates of remand (jailing before trial) which disrupts work, family and all other areas of life.
  • Insecure Shelter
    • Living in unsafe buildings
    • Overcrowding: First Nations are 3 times more likely to live in crowded conditions than non-Aboriginal Canadians
    • On reserve: 12.5% of First Nations experience overcrowding
    • Off reserve: living in poor neighbourhoods i.e. segregation of East/West side of Saskatoon.
  • Poor Health
    • Rate of tuberculosis among First Nations people is 8 to 10 times Canadian population as a whole
    • Shorter Life Expectancy:
      • 73 for First Nation males vs. 79 for non-First Nation males
      • 78 for First Nation females vs. 83 for non-First Nation females
    • Higher Infant Mortality:
      • 2 times that of non-Native newborns
      • Inuit babes are 4 times as likely to die
    • Higher Rate of obesity:
      • First Nations children on reserve: 36% obesity rate
      • Non-Native children: 8% obesity rate
    • Poor water quality in on-reserve homes.
  • Unemployment
    • Unemployment for Aboriginal people living off-reserve 8% higher than off-reserve non-Aboriginals
    • Unemployment rate for:
      • On-reserve First Nations: 22%
      • Inuit residing on Inuit territory: 20%
    • Aboriginal youth 15-24 twice as likely to be unemployed as non-Aboriginal youth (2001).



  • Racist remarks, disparaging jokes, stereotypes, internet comments:
    • “You don’t pay taxes.”
    • “You get free stuff.”
    • “Natives drink too much.”
    • “Natives are lazy.”
    • “Indians are violent.”
    • “Patient called in with a …strong accent. Triage nurse called me and said: ‘there’s something wrong with your patient. I think she’s retarded.” Dr. Smylie, 2009
  • Attitudes of Canadians
    • Leger Marketing survey on attitudes of Canadians showed that:
      • English Canadians are regarded favourably by 84% of the population
      • Immigrants by 70%
      • Jews by 69%
      • French Quebecers by 65%
      • Aboriginal peoples by 56%.


  • Definition of institutional racisms:“…the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.”William Macpherson
  • Institutions include:
    • police forces
    • courts
    • prisons
    • universities
    • media outlets
    • governments
    • corporations.


  • Aboriginal people make up 4% of population but 23.2% of federal inmate population
  • Incarceration rate for Aboriginal adults is 10 times higher than non-Aboriginal adults
  • Once incarcerated, Aboriginal adults are more likely to:
    • Be classified as higher risk
    • Serve a longer portion of their sentence
    • Experience higher rate of use of force
    • Experience incidents of self-injury
    • Have their parole revoked for administrative reasons, not criminal violations
    • Be placed in segregation and maximum security.


  • Distrust of institutions and their officials based on historical mistreatment (i.e. Residential Schools, 60’s Scoop) including:
    • RCMP, municipal police members
    • Child Welfare agencies
    • Teachers, Principals, other school officials
  • Family First
    • Family requests pre-empt other priorities such as jobs, school, etc.
    • Family Structure: extends beyond nuclear family model
  • Leadership role of Elders
  • Ceremonies:
    • Smudging, feasts, pow-wows, Round dances, Raindances, Sundance
    • Each ceremony has its own protocols.

Sources: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2010, Indigenous Children’s Health Report, 2009, Statistics Canada, Report of the Correctional Investigator, 2013