Selkirk’s collaborative S.T.A.R.T. program used as a model for others in Manitoba
The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) stated clearly more than 30 years ago that if all levels of society did not invest in programs and services aimed at preventing children and youth from getting involved in criminal activity then more of those children would find themselves in trouble with the law, and in and out of the criminal justice system.
The AJI, a public inquiry commissioned by the Manitoba government in 1988, said in its final report presented in 1991 that its stated purpose was “to examine the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples of Manitoba and the justice system.”
The inquiry was commissioned by the Manitoba government after some high-profile cases that included the shooting of John Joseph (J.J.) Harper in 1988 and the murder of Helen Betty Osborne in 1971, which led to increasing scrutiny regarding the way that Indigenous people in Manitoba were being treated at all levels of the justice system.
In the final report, the AJI said if improvements to community programming and services for youth were not made, then Indigenous youth and adults would continue to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
“The young people in Manitoba's Aboriginal communities are at risk. The choices facing the people of Manitoba are stark: invest today in programs to strengthen families, young people, and communities; or make future investments in jails and courthouses,” the AJI’s final report read.
Among many recommendations in the AJI’s final report were calls to “strengthen families and create conditions that lessen the likelihood of young people being engaged in criminal and other anti-social behaviour.”
Three decades after the inquiry was released, one program in Manitoba is working with the goal of giving youth who are struggling the support they need to stay out of trouble and the criminal justice system.
Those who run the program say their work is proving that when you invest in supporting young people and invest in giving them the support that they need, you increase the chances that they will go on to find success.
According to program coordinator Tammy Thompson, it was 20 years ago that some in the city of Selkirk and surrounding communities realized they could be doing more to keep Indigenous children and youth, and all youth from falling behind and struggling in school, to prevent them from getting involved in at-risk or criminal behaviour.
It was out of that belief that the Selkirk Team for At-Risk Teens (S.T.A.R.T.) program was created, and from the beginning, it worked with the goal of bringing in whatever people or organizations needed to help each person they are working with.
“It’s really a community-mobilization program,” Thompson said. “It was started by the local school division in Selkirk, the local RCMP, youth corrections, and Child and Family Services (CFS) because they all felt that they were having limited impact working with some people on their own and that a collaborative approach would be far more beneficial.
“And they were right, and we have been able to prove that they were right over 20 years.”
Thompson said that through referrals the program deals with children and youth in Selkirk, St. Clements, St. Andrews, and in the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, typically working with those who are dealing with multiple challenges that could include trouble with the law, substance abuse, and continued absence from school.
“We really reserve our services for those who are struggling the most, and we have to look at each client as a completely individual case, so we create teams around them rather than trying to fit them into a team, and that often includes working with any of a number of agencies,” she said.
Thompson added they have worked with children as young as six years old, and have had well-documented success over two decades in helping to get young people away from at-risk behaviour, and helping them to succeed in school and in their own lives.
“From an education perspective, we have shown that the program has heavily increased school attendance and academic success, and we know that from a justice perspective, we are greatly reducing calls to RCMP for service,” Thompson said.
“What we are doing is working.”
The program has been so successful, according to Thompson, that similar programs modelled after the S.T.A.R.T program have also been launched successfully in Steinbach, Dauphin and Gimli.
Thompson added that it's integral to the program that Indigenous children and youth are offered the kinds of support that will work best for them.
“It is a measurable [goal] that we have offered those culturally-appropriate supports for people if they want them.”
But while programs like S.T.A.R.T. continue to assist Indigenous youth, statistics continue to show that in Manitoba and across Canada, Indigenous people continue to make up a disproportionately large number of those involved in the justice system, and those who re-offend.
According to a recent federal report, Indigenous people make up around 30% of the federal prison population in Canada while making up just 5% of the country's population, but those numbers rise steeply in Manitoba, where it is estimated that at Stony Mountain Penitentiary — this province’s largest federal penitentiary — as many as 65 to 70% of inmates are Indigenous.
Statistics also show that once Indigenous people have their first run-in with the justice system, there is a far greater chance that they will continue to re-offend than there is for non-Indigenous people.
“Indigenous people are significantly more likely than non-Indigenous people to have re-contact with police following correctional involvement,” a 2019 report from Statistics Canada reads.
And according to Thompson, it is those statistics that show how important it is to offer support to young people who are struggling and offer them as soon as those challenges begin, but also important to be available to them whenever they are struggling.
“For anyone who has ever tried to change something in their life, they know how hard that can be, and when times get hard we tend to go back to what we know, and that is when they need that person to go to and say, ‘I’m really struggling today.’
“And that’s a huge part of this, to just be there for them.”
Thompson said although S.T.A.R.T. tracks their successes and failures through research, they know what they are doing is working because they watch as more and more of the people they have worked with continue to stay out of trouble and find success in their lives.
“We often see people referred to us that are consistently in trouble, and a year later there are no more calls for service to the police, and we know that is because we are giving them the support that they need,” she said. “And we hear from former clients that don’t need our help anymore, but just call to share their milestones.
“They are finding success and finding pride in themselves, and that is the best feeling in the world.”
Last fall, the Manitoba government announced its plans to offer more funding and resources for programs and services aimed at preventing Indigenous youth from getting involved in the justice system. The province said it would partner with Marymound Inc. on a new youth justice program to provide “culturally safe and supportive programming to help reduce the disproportionate number of Indigenous youth in custody and on probation.”
Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen claimed at the time that the province understands the importance of those types of programs and services, and why they need funding and support.
“Research suggests that leveraging culturally-relevant components with conventional principles are the best ways to reduce justice involvement,” Goertzen said in a news release.
“There are significant economic and human costs associated with crime and incarceration, so we are taking these important steps to help young people avoid future justice system involvement, by focusing on resolving the issues believed to be major contributors to criminal behaviour.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun