Indigenous criminology students share passion to change the justice system from within

U of A criminology program has highest rate of Indigenous enrolment among all arts programs.


First-year criminology student Shaylee Lyne Desjarlais-Whitford is learning Cree with a goal to eventually study law and become a prosecutor specializing in Indigenous cases. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

Growing up near Lac La Biche, Alta., Shaylee Lyne Desjarlais-Whitford couldn’t help noticing how Indigenous people were treated differently by the justice system.

She saw how many close to her on the Kikino Métis Settlement didn't get fair representation when charged with an offence. “Prosecutors were throwing cases away just to get them done,” she said. “It forced me to grow up fast.”

She eventually witnessed the disparity first-hand after she was sexually abused by a family member.

“When my case finally got through, the perpetrator only got one year probation,” she said. “The prosecutor just wanted to fast-track it, like with most sexual assault cases.”

Witnessing the tragedy of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls only strengthened Desjarlais-Whitford’s resolve to do something about the injustice in the justice system, so she decided to study criminology at the University of Alberta while learning Cree to one day speak for those who can’t.

Now in her first year at the U of A, Desjarlais-Whitford represents a new generation of Indigenous students tired of witnessing cycles of intergenerational trauma and fired up to change the system from within.

In fact, the university’s bachelor of arts in criminology has the highest Indigenous enrolment in the Faculty of Arts this year. At 10 per cent, it is about twice the faculty average of between four and five per cent, according to acting program director Marta-Marika Urbanik.

The reasons for that are hardly surprising, said Sandra Bucerius, director of the U of A’s Centre for Criminological Research.

“Indigenous people are disadvantaged at every stage of the criminal justice system in Canada,” she said, where “the ongoing displacement and marginalization of Indigenous people are particularly apparent.”

Indigenous women in particular are “subjected to more state and interpersonal violence than any other demographic group in Canada,” she said.

Indigenous people continue to be incarcerated at disproportionately high levels, accounting for 28 per cent of admissions to the federal and provincial correctional systems while making up only five per cent of Canada’s population.

“These disparities are only increasing,” said Bucerius. “A 2020 correctional investigator’s report found that while the incarceration rate of non-Indigenous individuals decreased by 14 per cent in the last decade, it increased by 43 per cent for Indigenous people during the same period.”

That stark reality “ignited a passion” in Kennedy Sanderson when she first learned about it in her Native studies courses. Now a fourth-year criminology student, she decided then and there to dedicate her life to redressing the imbalance.

“It was something I just needed to be in for the sake of Indigenous peoples,” she said.

Kennedy Sanderson
Fourth-year criminology student Kennedy Sanderson says she sees law as a path to reforming the justice system, “one person at a time.” (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

Sanderson grew up in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and has spent most of her life in Edmonton, but has family — including grandparents, aunts and uncles — struggling with the painful legacy of residential schools.

“So I’m tying that to a lot of the stuff I'm learning about now,” she said.

Sanderson is completing a placement at the Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security prison, shadowing parole officers and auditing interviews with inmates.

“Seeing that first-hand is brutal, absolutely brutal,” she said. “I think that was really what struck me the most.

“You take a step back and think, ‘How did they get here?’ That's when you start to see the racism, discrimination and the horrible things that are happening in police services or in their communities.”

Like Desjarlais-Whitford, who wants to eventually study law to become a prosecutor specializing in Indigenous cases so she can “give people more of a chance of healing and rehabilitating,” Sanderson also sees law as the path to reform, “one person at a time.”

One of the biggest shortfalls she sees in the justice system — a gap she’d like to help fill — is a lack of support for those re-entering the community after release from prison.

“I'm so ambitious, to the point where sometimes it’s a problem for me, because maybe I have to accept the reality that I'm not going to change the world. But if I can make a difference in one individual's life, then that's a good place to start,” she said.

As for the rising Indigenous enrolment in criminology?

“The criminology program does need more Indigenous students, or at least more of an Indigenous perspective,” said Desjarlais-Whitford.

“It’s just really awesome to see,” agreed Sanderson. “It makes me excited to know that perhaps there are other people who share the kind of passion that I do.

“It comes down to getting educated, having a general understanding of the history of Canada and the steps we're making towards truth and reconciliation.”