Racism and Discrimination towards Indigenous youth:

The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Examining the role of racism and discrimination in social problems and delinquency for Indigenous youth[1] in Canada, also requires highlighting resilience factors such as connections to culture and community. Here, the focus is the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the policies and practices that funnel at-risk students “out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems” (Gray, 2019, p. 222). Statistics show that Indigenous youth are more likely to go to prison than to graduate high school as compared to non-Indigenous youth (Gebhard, 2012, p. 7). For any intervention aimed to reverse these statistics so that Indigenous youth can expect to go to university rather than prison (at the same rate as non-Indigenous youth), one must understand the impacts of colonization and systemic racism on the outcomes and life chances of Indigenous youth.

It is important to consider that any examination of risk factors for Indigenous youth must also be accompanied by a focus on resilience and strengths, as protective factors. Otherwise, there is a risk of pathologizing Indigenous people, blaming them for social problems, which reinforces the deficit lens that underlies the stereotyping and discrimination they face, and deflects the attention away from the source of harm (colonization and systemic racism). A focus on resilience is also necessary because there is an ethical imperative that any research examining the negative outcomes of racism on the mental wellbeing of Indigenous youth must be accompanied by interventions that support their resilience and enhance their mental wellness, and vice versa (Gebhard, 2018, p. 758). Indeed, a focus on culture alone can risk being a performative exercise that denies the impact of racism on Indigenous youth in the education system (Gebhard, 2018, p. 775). 

It is also important to note how gender interacts with risks and resilience, ias intersectionality indeed plays a role. Research shows (Blume et al. 2019, p. 392) that Indigenous females as well as two-spirit and gender diverse individuals are far more likely to experience more adverse effects of racism and discrimination, and heightened risks for internalizing problems such as depression, and for being targeted with violence and sexual assault, and ultimately, suicide and homelessness. Indigenous females are also more likely to receive heavier, more punitive prison sentences than Indigenous males, and non-Indigenous females (Alberton et al. 2021, p. 5 & 12). It is therefore recommended to keep a gender-specific and intersectional lens in mind when designing and implementing interventions among Indigenous youth.

Further, due to the complexity of the topic of the impacts of systemic racism, here the main focus will be on the role of racism in schools, as this has the greatest impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous youth, as the school climate can shape either risk or resilience.

Colonization and Systemic Racism as Risk factors

Indigenous peoples have long endured Canada’s program of forced assimilation policies through Residential Schools, Indian Hospitals, forced relocations to remote reserves, prohibiting languages and ceremonies, control over Indigenous identity and mobility through the Indian Act and the pass system, adoption and foster care tearing family and community apart, control over land and resources, chronic underfunding of basic services in Indigenous communities (clean drinking water, housing, education, healthcare, etc.) and other ongoing interferences with Indigenous sovereignty. These are all examples of processes originating in European colonization that impact a range of Indigenous experiences and compound with the systemic inequities that Indigenous people continue to face (Hautala and Sittner, 2019, p. 697). Systemic racism is thus defined as a multigenerational cycle that empowers EuroWestern dominance and maintains systemic inequities such as poverty, overincarceration and overrepresentation of Indigenous children in child welfare systems.

To connect these broader systems with mental health, the diathesis-stress model identifies pre-existing vulnerability (diathesis), or a potential for mental health issues due to genetics, interacting with certain environmental conditions (sources of stress). Other factors include substance use, responses to rejection by partners or friends, and school failure (Arnett, 2018, p. 404). Protective factors that can prevent externalizing and internalizing problems and support positive outcomes “include effective schools, social supports and additional resources” (Russell et al., 2021, p. 1). Individual factors such as “emotion regulation and problem solving skills, faith, and a belief that life has meaning” (Russell et al., 2021, p. 1), then interact with environmental factors in a reciprocal interaction.

One of the protective factors is school climate, which is the term used to describe the quality and types of interactions that the teachers have with the students, the expectations, and teaching methods. Research indicates that school climate is the most important determining factor in school success (Arnett, 2018, p. 307). A positive school climate is correlated with higher engagement and achievement, and less behaviour and mental health issues. Unfortunately, for Indigenous youth, high school drop out rates remain very high, compared with non-Indigenous youth (Gebhard, 2013, p. 2).

Anti-Indigenous racism at the systemic, institutional, and interpersonal levels all contribute to “race-related stress” for Indigenous youth at school. Race-related stress brings about higher levels of cortisol, overburdening the allostatic systems of the body, and increasing the possibility of illness, and ultimately affecting the body at a cellular level, as “embodied stress” (Harrell 2000, p. 7 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80). This can engender internalized stigma and identity development issues. These patterns “are associated with their increased risk for mental health problems” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80 & Ward, 2018, p. 21).

This multilayered Indigenous-specific racism and stereotyping is deeply engrained in Canadian socialization, and have become normalized in institutions to a point where it has become a ‘normal way of working’ (Harding, 2019, p. 5 & Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 697). Stereotyping and racism then further work to blame and pathologize Indigenous people for their social problems that are actually a result of colonization and systemic racism (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 698). “The several ways in which racism is denied is in itself constituted racist practice because the issue could not then be considered for its contribution(s) to lack of academic success” (Gebhard, 2013, p. 3).

Anti-Indigenous racism that is interwoven in the school climate then compounds with racism experienced by Indigenous people in the broader society and in the media, such as police harassment, interference by child welfare, housing discrimination, vicarious racism (hearing about other Indigenous people who have been harmed), being followed in a store, not being served in hospitality settings, etc.

In education, systemic racism is evident in the (lack of) allocation of resources and services that support Indigenous students to succeed, and at the institutional level, “a normalized culture of lowered expectations” (Gebhard, 2018, p. 760). Additionally, for hundreds of years, the education system in Canada has purposefully obscured the dark realities of colonization, championing an ‘explorer’ point of view and the erasure of Indigenous experiences, in order to perpetuate a myth of benevolence in Canadian socialization, as a form of Nation-building. A biased education that favours settler-colonial narratives and the denial of racism (Gebhard, 2018, p. 762), combined with “the predominantly White teaching force is understood here as indicative of a larger issue, which is the operation of Whiteness within the Canadian education system” (Gebhard, 2013, p.4 & Harding 2019, p. 38).

When racism and discrimination set the tone for school climate – when Indigenous youth endure repeated verbal and psychological assault, and teachers do not expect Indigenous students to achieve – they are not encouraged to pursue academic subjects, and their skills and intelligence go unrecognized. Indigenous youth receive differential treatment from teachers and peers based on misinformation, which is at the root of negative (explicit and implicit) racial biases and stereotypes about Indigenous people, such as “less intelligent”, “lazy” (Ward, 2018, p. 118), or “unruly” and “undisciplined” (Gebhard, 2018, p. 760). The latter can thus be a strong risk factor, as ongoing discrimination by adults (educators, school administrators, etc.) and differential expectations of Indigenous youth can result in academic disengagement (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 699, Ward, 2018, p. 21), reinforcing the lower expectations of educational achievement that are imposed upon them by multigenerational stereotyping, and ultimately dropping out of school altogether (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 723). In this way, expectations of (poor) school achievement are self-fulfilling prophecies.

Racial discrimination places stress on a youth’s sense of identity, fostering feelings of injustice as it contrasts with the socialization message of ‘equal treatment’, weakening any legitimacy of social institutions, which reduces social control, and might justify breaking rules or the law (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 700). These externalizing problems then reinforce poor treatment by adults in the school environment, which can contribute to poor mental health such as depression and anxiety (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 701). The experience of continual discrimination of Indigenous students by adult authority figures (e.g. school staff) “leads to feelings of devaluation and demoralization and decreases the extent to which individuals develop trusting, supportive, and prosocial relationships” (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 702-703).

Discrimination also contributes to marginalization and isolation within the school community, a denial of professional support and attention, the unfair and discriminatory practice of rules and procedures, and the denial of Indigenous experiences, rights, and history. This can foster internalized stigma, erosion of self-esteem, loneliness, and identity development issues (Gebhard, 2012, p. 8). These patterns “are associated with their increased risk for mental health problems” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80). To counter negative stereotypes, Indigenous students often feel compelled to outperform other students in order to fight off negative stereotyping that generates assumptions about the intelligence and competencies of Indigenous youth.

On an interpersonal level, anti-Indigenous racism can show up for Indigenous adolescents when they are exposed to daily micro-aggressions at school, and being undervalued and socially excluded. Research has highlighted that the prevalence of micro-aggressions in schools can affect the academic performance of Indigenous youth (Blume et al. 2019, p. 391). Thus, teacher bias and rejection from peers lead to low expectations and therefore low academic achievement, and disruptive behaviour, which can often lead to suspension, expulsion, or dropping out of school, which is illustrated by the low graduation rates of Indigenous students (Blume et al. 2019, p.396).

Research demonstrates that discrimination towards Indigenous youth is linked with response behaviours such as delinquency and violence (both as victim and aggressor). This is then compounded with disproportionate school disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion compared with non-Indigenous (especially White) students. Along with the integration of policing in the school system, the outcomes are such that Indigenous people being overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system, meaning that Indigenous youth are more likely to become imprisoned than graduate high school in Canada (Hautala & Sittner, 2019, p. 695). This is also known as the school-to-prison pipeline (Gray, 2019, p. 219). In addition, “it has also been acknowledged more recently that …race, including Indigenous identity in this case, significantly influenced decisions at all stages of the judicial process…Indigenous youth received more punitive sentences than non-Indigenous youth” (Alberton et al. 2021, p. 5).


Although there are many risk factors due to historical and contemporary colonization and systemic racism that negatively impact outcomes for Indigenous youth in Canada, many Indigenous youth also demonstrate relentless resilience, healing, wellness, and achievement (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 78). Such strength and resilience is a testament to all that Indigenous people have endured during a long history of systemic discrimination, structural violence, and marginalization (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 80).

Resiliency theory offers a framework to understand how Indigenous youth overcome risk factors, through a strengths-based approach. Resiliency theory highlights the positive social and individual factors that disrupt the pathway between risk factors to externalizing and internalizing problems, and ultimately, that can prevent extreme outcomes such as suicide, murder, and imprisonment (Blume et al. 2019, p.397). Resilience “can also be defined as the capacity to face challenges and to become somehow more capable despite adverse experiences” (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268).

“Much of the research on health and resilience in Indigenous communities recognizes that traditional forms of culture can support goals of healing, decolonisation, and resilience” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82). Research identifies connectedness to the land as an important aspect of Indigeneity and along with connection to culture and community, as essential to balancing physical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and cultivating a sense of belonging and relationship to the environment (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 81 & Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268 & Blume et al. 2019, p. 399). Activities and resiliency programs for Indigenous youth that foster these connections, such as traditional ceremonies, harvesting, learning the language and other teachings with Elders and knowledge keepers “engender a sense of pride and inner well-being, a caring for the land and in some sense, a natural and mutual feeling of being nurtured and cared for by the land” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82). Researchers also highlight the importance of connection to family and Indigenous history as supportive to healing and resilience in the face of ongoing colonization and systemic racism “that continually impact the social determinants of health” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83).

Interventions that connect Indigenous youth to their language, culture, community, and family ancestry not only help strengthen an Indigenous worldview and collective identity, they are also proving to be most effective in fostering resilience and a reduction in externalizing problems and risk-taking behaviours (Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 323 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83). Research has indicated that culturally-based interventions have increased school attendance, reduced behavioural issues, enhanced academic performance, decreased depression and suicide, decreased child apprehensions, increased school completion rates, and decreased injuries for Indigenous youth (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 268 & 290 & Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 82-83). Another important consideration is that “…the incorporation of Indigenous perspectives on resilience into the design and implementation of such interventions will ensure that approaches are grounded in the cultural values of Indigenous communities and have greater, more meaningful involvement of the youth they intend to impact” (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 84 & ).

For Indigenous youth, identity development is more complex for adolescents who experience a different culture at home than the majority culture. It can be difficult to reconcile opposing values between the two, and adolescents tend to respond in four different ways (Arnett, 2018, p. 183): assimilation (completely taking on the dominant culture), marginality (rejecting both cultures), separation (rejecting the majority culture as a response to discrimination), and biculturalism (moving back and forth between cultures, in a dual identity).

Resilience is thus complicated by the need for bicultural efficacy, or two-eyed seeing. Walking in both worlds can be challenging for Indigenous youth, and research shows that navigating these challenges is supported by being firmly rooted in their Indigenous identity, participating in cultural ceremonies, strong connections to family and community, and seeing their culture reflected and respected in the learning environment (Isaacson et al. 2018, p. 266 & 269 & Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 322). There is evidence suggesting that connection to culture and community may be even more pertinent for urban Indigenous youth, as their immersion in the dominant culture is much stronger than those living in remote Indigenous communities, which conversely makes them more adept at navigating the dominant culture than youth in rural communities (Blacklock et al. 2020, p. 323).

Thus, the role of racism and discrimination in the school climate can be seen as the greatest sources of stress that particularly affects the (mental) wellbeing of Indigenous youth, and contribute to social problems and delinquency for Indigenous youth in Canada.  As well, how ties to culture and community act as protective factors that foster resilience for Indigenous youth in the face of ongoing colonization and systemic racism. Therefore, the school climate can potentially shape either risk or resilience for Indigenous youth.

Colonization and systemic racism impact a range of Indigenous experiences and compound the systemic inequities found in the outcomes and life chances of Indigenous youth. Therefore, for any intervention aimed to prevent the risks of internalizing and externalizing problems, there is a need to understand the impact of colonization and to intervene in systemic racism in the education system. Since gender interacts with risks and resilience, it is important to consider intersectionality, as risks are far more likely for Indigenous females than for males. It is therefore recommended to keep a gender-specific lens in mind when designing and implementing interventions among Indigenous youth.

Finally, a focus on resilience also requires a critical lens asking why Indigenous youth require so much resilience in the first place, as interventions are the downstream response to many upstream problems for which Indigenous youth are not to be blamed. The economic, social, and political conditions that impact the social determinants of (mental) health (the upstream problems) need to be addressed. Governments, organizations, and institutions have been gradually implementing Indigenous people’s calls to action very recently, so there is optimism that the social change Indigenous movements have been calling for decades for is starting to happen now, and there is still much work to be done.

Therefore, any culturally based intervention intended to foster the resilience of Indigenous youth also needs to be accompanied by taking collective action to change the structural and social conditions that foster systemic racism and unparalleled inequities for Indigenous people in Canada (Isbister-Bear, Hatala, & Sjoblom, 2017, p. 83). It is recommended that any interventions at the level of education and community aimed at improving mental health outcomes and life chances for Indigenous youth must include culturally embedded, strengths-based approaches to resilience as well as an anti-racism and decolonizing lens. This requires an understanding of systemic racism in Canada as racismpassed down through the generations from adults to children, through socialization, and adults greatly influence and shape the school experience. Children are not inherently racist; they learn this from adults such as educators and parents. Seeing how interactions with educators has such a great influence on a youth’s mental health outcomes and life chances, it is imperative for interventions intending to improve outcomes for Indigenous youth to address the racism of educators and staff working in the education system. Ultimately, to reverse the statistics so that Indigenous youth can expect to graduate and go to university or other pursuits at the same rates that they are now being imprisoned.

[1] In this paper, the definition of Indigenous youth includes all young people in adolescence (ages 10-17) and emerging adulthood (ages 18-25), with First Nations, Métis, Inuit or mixed Indigenous ancestry in Canada. While there are myriad ways in which Indigenous people self-identify (such as belonging to a specific community, Nation, or territory), for the purposes of this paper, these general ancestry identity categories are applied. The overarching term Indigenous is used while also acknowledging the diversity of cultures, languages and traditions that exist among Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. Both categories of the age group and indigeneity have been identified in the literature reviewed.


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