The federal government will spend nearly $9 million over five years to expand Indigenous justice centres in B.C. as part of a new agreement with the province and First Nations Justice Council to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system.
There are currently four Indigenous justice centres across the province, including a virtual centre and locations in Prince George, Merritt and Prince Rupert, which were established as part of an overall strategy to provide more support and legal advice at a community level.
Advocates say the agreement is an important step toward ending discrimination against Indigenous people who need help navigating the justice system and need access to restorative justice and First Nations-led community programs.
Doug White, chair of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, said the centres work toward reducing the number of First Nations people involved in the criminal justice system and improving the experiences of those who are there.
He said the federal money will go toward increasing the number of centres in the province to 15, and expanding services at the existing centres.
"We have a long road ahead of us but we also have a strong First Nations strategy to guide us and partners who support us. We look forward to working with both the federal and B.C. provincial government to transform the justice system for Indigenous peoples," White said.
Recent statistics from the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator show more than 30 per cent of Canada's inmates are Indigenous, yet they make up about five per cent of the total population.
Minister of Justice David Lametti said the justice centre funding is in response to recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"Colonial structures such as the residential schools have an insidious way of replicating themselves across many other structures including the justice system," said Lametti, who attended a virtual news conference alongside White and others.
Lametti said he's hopeful the B.C. model for First Nations justice centres can be adapted and used across Canada.
B.C. Attorney General David Eby, who also attended the news conference, is hopeful the strategy will help reduce the number of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
"An ever-growing disproportionate number of Indigenous people are in our jails, with the fastest growing population behind bars being Indigenous girls," said Eby.