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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Federally sentenced women exist at the extreme end of the continuum of "women at risk" to the criminal law sanction. This pattern was recognized early in the work of the Task Force. Women at risk (and particularly federally sentenced women) are women who have the fewest advantages6 in Canadian society. The statistics point to Aboriginal Peoples as the most greatly disadvantaged community within Canadian society.7 Aboriginal women have even fewer advantages. When the problem of corrections is constructed in this way, the answer must lie in creating and providing meaningful choices.8 In fact, this is one of the themes and the philosophy of this Task Force report.

Women must have choices. This is as true for Aboriginal9 women as it is for all women.10 Historically, the criminal justice system in general and the federal prison system specifically, have clearly failed to provide options for women. The mandate of this Task Force was to review federal policies about sentenced women as women: a task that previously has not been undertaken in the numerous reports completed on the Prison for Women. Previously, women were mere add-one to the male system of federal incarceration. In the 1980's, this has been recognized as both unrealistic and paternalistic. Control over women's future, over women's choices, must rest within women's own experience. Likewise, adding-on Aboriginal women to the review of women serving federal sentences amounts to the same mistake as tacking women onto the tails of a system designed by, for and about men. This does not mean that a separate Task Force on Aboriginal women should have been struck. It is merely recognizing that control over our future as Aboriginal Peoples and our choices as Aboriginal women, must rest within Aboriginal communities, and with Aboriginal women.

Our distinct experience as Aboriginal women must be recognized. We cannot be either women only or Aboriginal only. Our race and our gender are integrally linked. Our identities as women flow from the teachings of our various Aboriginal Nations. That we are distinct must not be trivialized.

Being distinct means that within this new correctional philosophy of choice, choices for Aboriginal women must be guaranteed as meaningful. Aboriginal women have different notions of the family. We have a different world-view based on connection as symbolized by the circle and therefore, our way is not accepting of hierarchies. This is often described as a collective interest as opposed to an individual interest. Aboriginal women have a different order of prioritizing values although the values thought to be important are believed to be the same. We have a different understanding of history, and this understandingly shapes our perceptions. The conclusion must be that within the philosophy of choices, the spectrum of choices will not always remain the same.

Not only can we not separate the Aboriginal and the woman, it is important to understand we also share a common Aboriginal history. That common history is the history of racism, oppression, genocide, and ethnocide. It is one further way in which we are distinct. This shared history impacts on Aboriginal federally sentenced women in two ways. First, as the racism of the prisons or the criminal justice system has largely been ignored or vanished, the situation of Aboriginal women as participants in Canadian society cannot be understood by prison administrators or correctional bureaucrats. It is these individuals who have historically controlled the administration of criminal justice. This has left Aboriginal federally sentenced women in an impossible situation. The people who hold the key to their release, they cannot trust. This lack of trust is not the sole responsibility or failure of individuals (prisoners or correctional employees) but a systematic failure to address racism. It must be recognized that the racism that infests the criminal justice system is not carried only by Aboriginal women but by other cultures and races also.

Secondly, because the prison focuses only on the incident or incidents in the Aboriginal women's history which brought them into conflict with the law, Aboriginal prisoners cannot heal because the source of their pain lies within entire lives of violence, victimization, and abuse. This point is made clear in Margaret Shaw's research where it is discussed that many Aboriginal prisoners have difficulty either expressing themselves to staff or having their personal abilities recognized.11 This belief is further supported by extensive histories of violence and abuse among the women surveyed by the Task Force.12 Confronting their criminal behaviour and responsibility is not a complete healing.

To summarize in words more eloquent than we have, Fran Sugar and Lana Fox explain:

"Our understandings of law, of courts, of police, of the judicial system, and of prisons are all set by lifetimes defined by racism. Racism is not simply set by the overt experiences of racism, though most of us have known this direct hatred, have been called "dirty Indians" in school, or in foster homes, or by police or guards, or have seen the differences in the way we were treated and have known that this was no accident. Racism is much more extensive than this. Culturally, economically, and as Peoples we have been oppressed and pushed aside by Whites. We were sent to live on reserves that denied us a livelihood, controlled us with rules that we did not set, and made us dependent on services we could not provide for ourselves.''l3

Racism is a systematic barrier which operates in prisons merely as a reflection and extension of the greater and dominant society. The reality is that racism has established a situation where Aboriginal women serving federal sentences can only be further harmed.

It must be recognized that the racism which results in our oppression is violence. As Aboriginal people understand that oppression is violence, it is essential that staff and especially program and medical staff be Aboriginal people. This is not different from the recognition that women not men are best suited to provide certain security and program functions within institutional settings for women. It must be made mandatory that all staff, Aboriginal or otherwise, have a demonstrated understanding and respect for Aboriginal culture and traditions.14

Another variation on this same theme is apparent when conditional release is considered. Aboriginal women need Aboriginal halfway houses now. They need support in their communities and access to parole on reserves. Aboriginal women are frequently denied the opportunity (others would assert it is a right) to return home to their reserves on release because there is no supervised housing or parole supervision available. The fact that resources are limited (either in the real terms of service or monetarily) can no longer be allowed as an acceptable excuse or justification for the way things are. The responsibility to fully resource meaningful choices for Aboriginal women must be mandated in a timely way.

Further to the shared history of Aboriginal women, there is another theme emerging in the research. Aboriginal women have "a strong and uniform plea that their cultural and spiritual backgrounds be recognized and accepted, and that all aspects of their treatment within the prison and on release in the community reflect this recognition.''15 This plea comes not only from Prison for Women, but also from those Aboriginal women in provincial institutions. It cannot be over emphasized that programming (in such areas as parenting, sexual abuse, self-esteem, and career choices), education, and security must be provided in ways that are meaningful to Aboriginal women. This must not only include the meaningful participation of Aboriginal People, but also the meaningful participation of Aboriginal women who have been there and are healing. It is these women that have the most to offer Aboriginal prisoners.

The participation of Aboriginal women in this Task Force must never be viewed as a recognition that the jurisdiction of the federal government of Canada (or any provincial/ territorial government) in the affairs of our Nations is valid. Our Peoples, as Nations, have never consented to the application of the Euro- Canadian legal systems and the corresponding values. Our participation in the Task Force should be viewed as only a deep felt concern for the many citizens of our many Nations who suffer daily at the hands of the criminal justice system. These were conditions that were recognized at the outset of this work.

The mandate of this Task Force was too narrow to suit our needs and reflect our concerns. Beginning with the date of sentence and ending at the date of warrant expiry, effectively moves from the purview of the Task Force any consideration of the questions of sovereignty and control. Therefore, future meaningful negotiations must commence with Aboriginal governments who are now willing and competent to take over full or limited jurisdiction in the area of criminal justice. This will require the meaningful commitments of federal, all provincial and territorial authorities in Canada. This recommendation is of pressing importance to Aboriginal women, and cannot be shuffled under the number of other immediate and necessary recommendations that are being put forth. Further, it is a good way of ensuring that meaningful resourcing will exist at some time in the future.16

We must meaningfully work together toward not just short term or interim solutions, but those offering a genuine remedy and hope for the future. The Report of the Correctional Law Review on Native Peoples has already recognized this important commitment. As Aboriginal women, sentenced or not, we recognize that we have an obligation in our efforts to the seven generations who are yet to come. As it stands now, an Aboriginal woman is more likely to go to prison than she is to go to university.17 This is a reality we will not accept for our future.

Meaningful choices also entail that the governments involved in this vision must demonstrate their good faith. Too many Task Forces on prisoners or other Aboriginal issues have ended up on shelves collecting dust. Aboriginal communities have demonstrated their good faith by remaining committed to this work. It is essential that this report be implemented in both timely and meaningful ways.

Our dissatisfaction with the mandate also extends to the artificial (but perhaps necessary) distinction between men and women. As previously discussed in this chapter, Aboriginal culture teaches connection and not separation. Our nations do not separate men from women, although we do recognize that each has its own unique roles and responsibilities. The teachings of creation require that only together will the two sexes provide a complete philosophical and spiritual balance. We are nations and that requires the equality of both sexes.

We also do not accept that any real change will occur by focusing our attention solely on the plight of Aboriginal prisoners. Those individuals on charge or at risk are of no less concern to us than those already federally sentenced. Efforts must therefore focus on "turning off the tap" so Aboriginal individuals no longer come into conflict with foreign justice systems, be they child welfare systems, juvenile justice, federal or provincial systems.

It is only when we are able to reach this point that we will again be remaining and living true to our traditional philosophies as they were given to us by the Creator.

The position of Aboriginal women on the Task Force should not be viewed as radical, militant or impossible. It is our dream, and the dream of many Aboriginal Nations, and it will be reached. Many times it has been repeated by Aboriginal women speaking to the Task Force during consultations, "we are only telling you what we understand to be the truth". This truth is found within our experience. This is not to say that only Aboriginal People have access to the truth. Quite the contrary, all races (red, yellow, black and white) were given faith traditions. Each of these may be referred to as a racially and culturally specific truth. These references to Aboriginal truth are important because it is most often our teachings that are invalidated or overlooked by the dominant society. This is what is referred to in this report as racism. Further, the weaknesses of the Task Force have been pointed out only to ensure that it is clear we recognize them. We accept them solely for the purpose of moving on and do not wish to belabour them. These, too, are the realizations that pre-conditioned our participation in the Task Force. We must move on from here!

We have not shared what we understand to be the truth only for the benefit of Aboriginal women or Aboriginal people, but for all Peoples. As advocated by the John Howard Society of Manitoba, Aboriginal Peoples are the ones we must turn to as models in the area of alternative dispute resolution:

"We endorse a restorative model of justice rather than a retributive one. Mediation, reparation, and reconciliation are the best methods. Solutions must come from within the local community. The focus must be on problem-solving, dialogue and mediation. ... We want this to be similar to the Tribal system of justice... a non-criminal model with focus on the offenders within their culture and community. The victims too need their power restored and the offender needs to accept responsibility and accountability. We recommend a holistic approach."18

Alternatives are now the central cry for reform within the criminal justice system. We submit that alternatives must be principled on giving women meaningful choices.

Aboriginal nations have the power to heal. We only need the resources and respect to do so. This is best summarized by the recent statement of the Aboriginal Women's Caucus:19

"All Aboriginal, First Nations citizens are in conflict with the law. We are First Peoples with an inherent right to exercise our own systems of justice and the values these systems represent. The issue of Aboriginal women and the criminal justice system is merely the most blatant example of the oppression of First Nations People under a system of laws to which we have never consented. This position is supported by a number of recognized organizations including the Canadian Bar Association.

Our recommendations should in no way be viewed as a final product or a complete list. More accurately, our recommendations should be viewed as the minimum requirements that the Solicitor General's department must provide should you sincerely wish to prevent the continued violence and racism of the current criminal justice system as it is presently inflicted on First Nations Peoples. They are minimum requirements because the Solicitor General and the Government of Canada must become responsible and accountable if they wish to continue locking up First Nations Citizens. What is required is ACTION NOW."20

No previous task force nor royal commission on corrections whether it was focused on Aboriginal Peoples, women, or prisons generally, has ever recognized the unique position of Aboriginal women. The Aboriginal voice has been relegated to a few pages of these previous reports or to several recommendations which were disconnected philosophically from the thrust of those works. This has effectively silenced our voice and trivialized our experience. Heading into the 1990's, we find that this report has not only acknowledged our voice and our experience but, this report respects our historical and founding position as the Original Peoples of Canada. It is our voice that helps to lead this new vision for women in corrections. The Aboriginal women who helped in this report are celebrating because this is a first. It is this realization that gives us hope. We trust that the message of Aboriginal women is now clear. We ALL require ACTION NOW.