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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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The Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women was established in March, 1989, by the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

The mandate of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women required members to examine the correctional management of federally sentenced women from the commencement of sentence to the date of warrant expiry, and to develop a policy and a plan which would guide and direct this process in a manner that is responsive to the unique and special needs of this group.


The work of the Task Force was initially guided by the Terms of Reference agreed to by the Correctional Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. As well, the co-chairing organizations agreed to a number of working principles, namely, that:

  1. there will be open sharing of information;
  2. the Task Force will not be premised on the closure of the Prison for Women;
  3. there will be no expanded use of Federal/Provincial Exchange of Service Agreements for female offenders during the life of the Task Force, with the possible exception of Alberta. (Alberta has been advised that no further negotiations will take place until after the report of the Task Force has been tabled and considered.)
  4. the Task Force will engage in action research;
  5. the Task Force will be adequately staffed with research and administrative support;
  6. the Task Force membership will include representation from Aboriginal and minority women's groups, and information will be collected and analyzed in a culturally relevant way;
  7. the Task Force will consult with federally sentenced women;
  8. the Task Force will be composed of two committees - a Steering Committee and a Working Group. Both levels of the Task Force will be co-chaired by representatives from the Correctional Service of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.98
  9. The private sector will have membership on both committees of the Task Force equal to the government participation.



The Task Force was organized into two committees; a Steering Committee, comprised of senior officials from various relevant agencies and organizations and a Working Group, staffed by government and non- government representatives with direct expertise pertaining to federally sentenced women. A variety of different perspectives and experiences were represented on the Task Force. The membership included federally sentenced women, community, Aboriginal and women's groups, along with a variety of government agencies.

The Steering Committee was co-chaired by Bonnie Diamond, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and Jim Phelps, Deputy Commissioner, Correctional Programs and Operations, Correctional Service of Canada. This Committee provided overall direction, perspective, and a broad context for the work of the Task Force.

The Working Group was co-chaired by Jane Miller-Ashton, Director of Native and Female Offender Programs, Correctional Service of Canada, and Felicity Hawthorn, Board Member and Past President, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. The Working Group defined goals, developed work plans, assessed research needs, directed researchers, conducted the consultations, scheduled the discussions and drafted the report.

At the first Steering Committee meeting, the need for stronger representation from Aboriginal Women was raised by the Native Women's Association of Canada. Consequently, prior to the first Working Group Meeting, Aboriginal membership was enhanced from one to four on the Steering Committee and from one to two on the Working Group.


Following a review by the Task Force, the original Terms of Reference, agreed to by the Correctional Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, were revised. The amended Terms of Reference, which guided the work of the Task Force, now stress the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the Canadian criminal justice system as well as the significant impact of Aboriginal experience in clarifying the unresolved problems affecting federally sentenced women.


At the first meeting of the Task Force, it was agreed that consultations with federally sentenced women and with the community should be as broad-based as possible. Research requirements were identified in several areas, the most intensive of which appeared to be the survey of women's needs.


While members struggled with many issues over the course of the Task Force, five concerns in particular affected the work of the Task Force and its recommendations:

1. How Could the Task Force Obtain and Benefit from the Views of Aboriginal People?

The original consultations planned by the Task Force failed to effectively reach Aboriginal communities. The Task Force did not consider this failure acceptable and recognized that, for any future initiatives, efforts must be made to develop a more sensitive Aboriginal consultation strategy. This failure, and the subsequent work to enhance the cultural appropriateness of the various research instruments, sensitized the Task Force to the need for innovative approaches to information gathering. The needs survey of federally sentenced women in the community is an example of such an approach. The Aboriginal component of this survey was developed and managed independently of the non-Aboriginal component, by an Aboriginal team under contract.

The Task Force was also assisted in its efforts to achieve a more profound appreciation of Aboriginal reality through a workshop with an Elder, Joan Lavalee. As work progressed, the Task Force came to the understanding that it could not be a joint Correctional Service of Canada/Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies initiative. Rather it must act as a tripartite initiative, if the voices of Aboriginal women were to be heard clearly and without distortion.

2. How Could the Task Force Build a New Correctional Approach for Women?

Through its consultations, research and discussions, the Task Force struggled to move beyond previous approaches to federally sentenced women, which assessed and responded to the situation of women in comparison to federally sentenced men. The comparison approach quickly proved to be limited, and indeed regressive, since equality, even in terms of parity with federally sentenced men, acts as an implicit endorsement of traditional correctional practices.

The rejection of this approach required the Task Force to formulate a plan which would respond to the needs and risks represented by the women themselves, and which would respond in a way reflective of women's perceptions of, and interactions with, each other and society generally. However, it should be noted that the work to build a correctional system, based on women's reality rather than sexual and racial stereotypes, was made more difficult by the fact that a comprehensive, coherent female corrections model does not exist, particularly one that is also responsive to Aboriginal perceptions.

3. How Could the Task Force Create Recommendations for Fundamental Change in Less than One Year?

The desire to conduct broad-based consultations and collect comprehensive information on the needs of federally sentenced women within a short timeframe, quickly led the Task Force to a significant conclusion - the Task Force would be working on issues and dilemmas at the same time as the consultations and research were in progress. This parallel process meant that the analysis of the implications of the research findings could not be incorporated until late in the process.

The Task Force members also worked on the assumption that the fine details of the recommended plan would be decided in a comprehensive implementation phase following the work of the Task Force.

4. Could the Existence of the Task Force be Used to Delay Change?

In an initial discussion of hopes and fears early in the work of the Task Force, members expressed a strong concern that the existence of the Task Force, and, subsequently, the existence of its report, could be used as an excuse to delay urgently needed action to improve conditions under which women currently serve their sentences.

As a corollary, the position was adopted that any initiatives under consideration should be brought to the attention of the Task Force. This stance was considered critical since Task Force members recognized that any recommended plan would take time to implement fully.

5. How Could Members Overcome the Limitations of the Task Force Mandate?

Finally, the Task Force struggled with the limitations imposed by its mandate. To examine correctional management from date of commencement of federal sentence to date of warrant expiry and to develop a plan which can be implemented within current legislation, created severe constraints. It obligated the Task Force to exclude from full consideration provincially sentenced women, the impact of the pre- sentence period and the issue of Aboriginal self-determination with respect to corrections. In addition, the legislative limitations precluded the formulation of a community-based correctional system.

The Task Force struggle ultimately resulted in the conclusion that these broader concerns and goals would provide the context for our recommended plan.


Trends and events within the correctional system and in the broader society strongly support the need for a comprehensive approach to change. As the environment overview summarized above suggests, there is a groundswell of consensus that fundamental reform is urgently required and that the time to act is now.