Correctional Service Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Regional Facilities for Women Offenders

Warning This Web page has been archived on the Web.

The establishment of regional facilities for federally-sentenced women in 1995 is certainly one of the most progressive and significant developments in Canadian correctional history. This event marks the end of all federally-sentenced women having to serve their penitentiary time away from their family, friends, communities and cultures. The opening of the Healing Lodge and regional facilities for women also marks significant progress in the recognition of the programming needs, life experiences and cultural realities of federally-sentenced women.

Until 1995, all federally-sentenced women, regardless of their security classification, had to serve their time at the only federal penitentiary for women in Canada, the Prison for Women (P4W). Since its opening in 1934, P4W has been surrounded by controversy and criticism. It has been the subject of 14 inquires and commissions, many of which have recommended its closure. In 1938, only four years after its opening, the Archambault Commission was shocked at the appalling conditions of the institution and concluded that P4W should be closed and the offenders returned to their home province. This position was reiterated in 1956 and again in 1977 when P4W was described as "unfit for bears, much less for women", by the MacGuigan Report. Moreover, the lack of adequate and appropriate programming at P4W was also described as "outright discrimination" by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1981.

The last government committee to recommend the closure of the Prison for Women was the 1989 Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. The Task Force was commissioned to review the overall situation at P4W and to chart a new, appropriate and effective direction for female offenders. Building on a strong commitment to partnership, it was a tripartite endeavor between the Correctional Service Canada (CSC), the Elizabeth Fry Society and Aboriginal women. The Task Force employed a women-centered approach to corrections, stressed the importance of meaningful choices for women and emphasized a concern with the over-representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system. As other inquires and commissions had done before, the Task Force identified a number of problems with P4W including, for example, the over-secure classification of the institution, poor programming, geographic isolation, cultural insensitivity and a lack of services for Francophone offenders.

The primary recommendation of Creating Choices, which was subsequently accepted by CSC, was the closure of P4W and the establishment of four regional facilities and an Aboriginal Healing Lodge. Regional Facilities first began opening in the fall of 1995 and are located in Kitchener, Ontario; Truro, Nova Scotia; Joliette, Quebec; and Edmonton, Alberta. The Aboriginal Healing Lodge is located on the Nekaneet land near Maple Creek Saskatchewan. These new centres were designed to reflect and respond to the needs and realities of federally-sentenced women based on the principles of empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, supportive environment and shared responsibility. The environment of the facilities is communal in nature, stressing day-to-day routine as well as meaningful and appropriate vocational and educational programming. Okimaw Ochi, the Healing Lodge, is unique in Canada for its emphasis on traditional Aboriginal spirituality and healing. In 1997, 85% of federally-sentenced women were accommodated at regional facilities.

In April 1994, before the opening of the facilities, P4W was the subject of yet another controversy. The airing of a video by a major television network of women at the prison being strip searched by an all-male Emergency Response Team (ERT) shocked Canadians. The cell-extraction was described by the Correctional Investigator in his Special Report to Parliament as "an excessive use of force and it was without question degrading and dehumanizing for those women involved". The government responded to the Report by commissioning an inquiry to investigate these incidents. The Commission, chaired by Justice Louise Arbour, can be generally characterized as an indictment against the Correctional Service of Canada. It is no doubt that these events at P4W will always remain a stain in the history of the Service. It will also be remembered, however, that the CSC responded to the recommendations of the Arbour Report promptly and vigorously. For example, since its release, CSC has established the new position of Deputy Commissioner for Women; revised policies and procedures regarding cross-gender searches; instituted strategies to address specific mental health issues of federally-sentenced women; established legal awareness training for employees; and introduced a system for prioritizing offender grievances and complaints.