Legal mistreatment of Aboriginals

Historically Canadians have considered themselves to be more or less free of all types of racism or racial prejudice, although this belief has been actively tested time and time again since the start of the 20th century. Though various different forms of racism are exhibited in our country and these injustices were faced by many different races – this page will focus on the legal mistreatment of indigenous or Aboriginal peoples who call Canada home.

These Aboriginal or First Nations peoples are the descendants of the individuals known to be the first inhabitants of Canadian soil and these peoples held a sense of partnership with the white European settlers who came to their land. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, after several centuries of co-operation, it was only in the 19th century that prejudice and discrimination toward the Aboriginals began. Click here to see highlights of their report.

Some of the most blatant examples of racism toward First Nations peoples in Canada are demonstrated by the Canadian legal system – where institutionalized racism has been occurring for nearly 200 years. Institutionalized racism is when a system functions in a racist manner. Instead of the problem being just racist individuals, our whole legal system  (police, courts and prisons) in Canada operate in a racist manner. According to the 2006 census, Aboriginal peoples made up only 3% of the entire population of Canada, but between 1997-2004 they made up 17% of victims and 23% of those accused of committing a homicide. When taking the difference between population levels into account, it can be said that Aboriginal were 10 times more likely to be accused of a homicide than a non-Aboriginal person. Incarceration rates for Aboriginal peoples are increasing. From 1998/1999 to 2007/2008 the proportion of Aboriginal adults sentenced to custody steadily grew from 13% to 18%.

Why do the actions and motives of the courts and legal system seem racist when things between the races started out seemingly peaceful? The relationship between these peoples have deteriorated over time.

My second example of the mistreatment of First Nations peoples within the Canadian legal system focuses on the outlawing of a native cultural tradition by the courts. The Aboriginal people of Canada practised ceremonial dances since before the arrival of the very first settlers – these settlers would watch for many years and be transfixed by what they called a warlike and violent culture. (Backhouse 1999 63). In Rapid City, Manitoba in 1902 the grass dance done by The Oak River Dakota lasted 3 days. These Aboriginal peoples were native to the area and had been attending and celebrating the Rapid City annual July fair since the 1870’s – this fair had taken place in Rapid City every year at this time and the natives would always perform their dance for the white onlookers. The white people who watched the 12 Dakota natives dance over three days starting on July 17th were completely unaware that the celebration of culture they were observing would later result in the prosecution of criminal charges.

In 1884, the Indian Act outlawed the Potlach and Tamanawas dances native to the west coast and violators faced criminal charges. The prohibition was extended in 1895 to encompass all festivals, dances, and ceremonies involving the giving away of money or goods, or the wounding of people or animals. This meant the Dakota were in direct conflict with these laws because their dance ritual involved the exchanging and giving of gifts and goods. The dozen Dakota indigenous people who danced on the days between July 17-19, 1902 were all sentenced and convicted with violating the amended Indian Act They were jailed for two to six months. These people were arrested and thrown in jail because they exchanged or gave gifts which is a common occurrence in “white” culture – the underlying truth is that they were given these sentences due to the institutional racism that occurs in our court system.

Although the relationships between white and indigenous peoples started out quite mutual and primarily peaceful times changed. Canadians may consider our country relatively free from racism and prejudice, but the evidence presented challenges that understanding. The mistreatment of First Nations peoples by white people began in the 19th century and quite quickly the  Canadian legal system itself became racist. So in reality, Canadians probably aren’t as far away from the dark days of racism as they think they are.

– Jordan Noseworthy

Further Reading:

  1. Wortley, Scot. “Hidden Intersections: Research on Race, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Canada”. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 35, 3 (2003) p. 99-117


  1. Backhouse, Constance. “Colour Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950”. (1999) p. 56-102

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