Criminalization of Indigenous People Part I – A Foreign System: Incarceration of Indigenous Women

Criminalization of Indigenous People Part I – A Foreign System: Incarceration of Indigenous Women

We have people coming in to Elizabeth Fry who do their community service hours as an alternative to going to jail. Other kinds of sanctions might include writing a letter of apology, financial compensation to the victim, or attending counseling programs. The community justice worker meets with the client when they return to court, providing emotional support and helping the clients with the necessary documentation to have their charges withdrawn.

I also oversee the Partner Assault Response (PAR) program, which is a 16-week psycho-educational program provided for women who are charged in domestic violence situations and who have entered a plea in the domestic violence court system. Ontario has adopted a “mandatory charge” policy that compels police responding to a domestic violence call to lay a charge when there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that a criminal offense has been committed. This removes the burden from a woman to lay a charge against her abusive husband. Sometimes a “dual charge” will result if the police believe that both parties have committed an offense.

When you are managing a program, you don’t get to work with the clients directly but do shadow groups. What I saw in shadowing a PAR group deeply moved me. I saw a lot of fear in the faces of the women. They were mandated to be there, and in most cases it was from dual charges. It was really hard to sit there and see the women going through that mandated program and knowing the reality of their situation.

Justice for Incarcerated Women

Elizabeth Fry was an English woman born in 1780 into a wealthy Quaker family. In 1812, she began visiting women in London’s infamous Newgate prison. Appalled by the squalid conditions of poor women incarcerated with their children, Elizabeth Fry began services such as school for children and work projects for women where they could earn money for their release. She also advocated with government and public for female guards and better conditions.

In 1951 a group of Toronto women invited Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first woman of parliament, to meet with them and discuss recommendations made by the Archibald Report calling for change in the Canadian prison system. Agnes was a socialist who had helped to found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Active in the struggle for improvement of penitentiary conditions and treatment of offenders, Agnes MacPhail’s enthusiasm was the spark for the formation of the Toronto Elizabeth Fry Society in 1952.

Elizabeth Fry Toronto recognizes that pursuit of justice and the fair and equal treatment for women in the criminal justice system is directly related to the pursuit of equal rights for all members of society.  Our staff and our volunteers are dedicated. We provide a wide range of programs for women who are and have been at risk of coming into conflict with the law. Our programs include homelessness and outreach services, residential programs, community programs and court services.

Poverty, Race, Gender Violence and Criminalization

Poverty and homelessness are key reasons why many women become involved with the criminal justice system. Elizabeth Fry Toronto recognizes this and provides a number of programs which specifically address the needs of homeless women. The post-incarceration housing program is in high demand. It offers help to homeless women who have been released from prison in accessing adequate affordable housing. In addition, support is provided to enable women to maintain their housing.

It’s very, very difficult finding affordable housing. When I was running that program, staff would let me know that at times women felt they were kind of being pushed to live in a home where it’s mostly men, not a very safe environment.

The women who stay at our half way house residence are on parole from provincial or federal prisons and spend varying amounts of time with us. It is their home during this critical period and in which they ease into life outside of the institution and integrate into the community.

It is our belief that ensuring that women with histories of severe physical and sexual abuse and family breakdown acquire the means and skills to live with purpose and take courageous steps to rebuild their lives is more effective than incarceration and detention without bail.

Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) describes the average Aboriginal woman in a penitentiary as person who is about 27 years old, with an average Grade 9 education level, who left home at an early age. She is unemployed or underemployed, and a sole support mother of two to three children. Her history or herstory is one of racism, stereotyping and discrimination because of her race and color, and sexual, emotional and physical abuse. She is likely to become involved in an abusive relationship.

Aboriginal women are over-represented in the federal prison system. In 2007, they represented about three percent of women in Canada, yet they were 32 percent of the women in federal prisons. We are vastly over represented in certain charges.

A correctional investigator found that CSC routinely classifies First Nations, Inuit and Métis women as higher security than non-Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women are released later in their sentences than other women, and are more likely to have their conditional release revoked for technical reasons than others. Aboriginal prisoners often do not receive timely access to rehabilitative programming and services.

Violence against Aboriginal women is rarely understood as a human rights issue. We have a right as Aboriginal women to be free and safe from all violence. We are not offered an adequate level of protection by state authorities. Why is this still happening to our women?

Conflicting Notions of Justice

I believe that the Canadian legal system is a very foreign and inappropriate system for the resolution of conflict in our communities. The difference in the Aboriginal notions of justice can lead to misunderstandings of our people. It is discrimination to expect people to act in a way that is contrary to their most basic beliefs. We have our own traditional ways in governing.

The gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offenders continues to grow. It is said that the rate of Aboriginal incarceration in 2008 was nine times the national average. It is imperative that CSC meet its statutory obligations to ensure that the rights of Aboriginal prisoners to effective assistance in reintegrating into community are respected.

We have faced the most racial discrimination of any group in Canada. Discrimination against Aboriginal people has been a central policy of the Canadian government since confederation, through measures such as the Indian Act, Bill C-31, the residential school system and the reserve system.

We have an aging Aboriginal population within the prisons who are survivors of the residential school system. When they are released they often times reoffend. There is a real gap in services there – how do we provide services for this population?

Impacts of Bill C10

The mandatory minimum sentence provisions of Bill C10 will guarantee an influx of prisoners to our already overcrowded provincial prisons. It will create an even larger backlog at courthouses. This in turn will lead to a higher cost to our province and citizens.

A large number of our clients at Elizabeth Fry Toronto are Aboriginal women who unfortunately get caught up in the criminal justice system due to the repercussions of criminalization. Many of the women we serve are survivors of physical and sexual abuse. Our hope is to address these concerns through education, housing initiatives and programs. This would be far more effective than sentencing.

Bill C10 will lead to a dismantling of restorative justice programs that date back to 1974, including healing circles and family group conferences. So Aboriginal Canadians will be hit hard if Bill C10 is passed. Currently, Section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code enshrines a “Gladue Principle” by which a court is required to take into account all reasonable alternatives to incarcerations, with particular sensitivity to specific circumstances facing Aboriginal people. This will be compromised under Bill C10.

Jules Koostachin is Cree from the Attawapiskat First Nation. She ran the Anduhyaun women’s shelter in Toronto for five years, and went on to work at Earlscourt Family Centre (now the Child Development Institute). She is a media artist, and a court and volunteer program manager with Elizabeth Fry Toronto. PhotographerTammy Bird is Aboriginal Inreach Councillor, Elizabeth Fry Toronto.

The presentation on which this article is based can be viewed on Youtube.The complete webcast from the panel on The Criminalization of Indigenous People at Indigenous Sovereignty Week 2011 can be found here.