Good afternoon, and thank you for having me. I usually feel more comfortable in front of a room full of offenders, so I apologize if I stumble a little.
I would add that the Correctional Service of Canada does not look kindly on those staff members who would speak out, but I believe that your questions deserve a perspective from those of us working on the front line.
I want to stress the following areas for immediate action that I believe should be pursued for increased positive outcomes with federally incarcerated indigenous women.
One, increase supports for women with mental health issues. Two, review employment programs and look at funded community partnerships outside the current CSC program model. Three, revisit the role of elders to free them from paperwork, and hire elders to work in the community. Increase the numbers of indigenous staff and parole board members. Finally, have real and meaningful consultation with the staff who are doing the work.
With recent current events in the justice system, I believe that the study you have undertaken is more important than ever to build relationships with indigenous people and renew their faith that they will be treated humanely and fairly. I agree completely with the testimony from previous witnesses about the reasons for the over-incarceration of indigenous women.
I struggled with what to say in this short statement, as I often feel as if I have a foot in two worlds: one in the world of the Correctional Service of Canada, with its policies and academics, and the other as an indigenous woman who has a similar background, in many ways, to the people I work with.
I am speaking with the blessing of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, of which I am a member along with other parole officers, aboriginal liaison officers, program officers, and other support staff. I am a front-line community parole officer with 16 years of experience and I am currently working with an all-female caseload. I previously worked with women on conditional release, between 2002 and 2007.
I have also worked with the Parole Board of Canada in elder-assisted hearings, as well as at an urban indigenous organization, and also with at-risk youth.
I listened to the testimony of previous witnesses and I echo what they said: that indigenous women need help to heal from their trauma and reconnect with their families and their communities. I have witnessed first-hand the pain and trauma of these women and their struggles to reintegrate into the community, but I have also had the enormous privilege to witness them change their lives dramatically if they are provided appropriate support and guidance.
Many offenders say to me that being in the community is sometimes more difficult than being incarcerated, because in the community, for example, they must negotiate poor employment opportunities, lack of affordable housing, and child welfare issues, all the while dealing with their personal issues.
CSC needs to reinvest not only in institutional operations but also in the community if they wish to increase their results with this population. There has been some progress in community investments, as recently evidenced by expansions of section 81 facilities such as Buffalo Sage, but this model is not always viable in some centres with smaller numbers of indigenous offenders.
CSC should think about revisiting past programs that were cut, such as the private home placement program, which is a possible solution to the above problem and could accommodate low-risk, low-needs offenders in both urban and rural areas.
Other suggestions for improvement in the institution and community include offering realistic employment skills and training, as well as education programs and work releases, to increase the women's marketable employment skills and to give them the ability to support themselves and their children.
I would like to specifically highlight the increasing complexity of cases, including those of women with serious mental health issues, violence, complex health issues, and serious addictions, that challenge the capacity of staff and infrastructure in both the institution and the community. We need such resources as psychologists, mental health nurses, and bedspace in specialized mental health units to deal with these cases, as there are often wait-lists to access these and a very small number of beds available in regional psychiatric centres.
For other offenders, increased capacity in the Pathways units in the institutions should be looked at. The aboriginal intervention centres they have proposed for institutions need more development, however, and should include more meaningful consultation with staff before this initiative is finalized, to see what works and what does not.
CSC also needs to revisit the role of elders, as we dishonour them and undermine their role in tying them to paperwork. They need to be free to work with offenders to heal through ceremony and one-to-one work. A full-time or even part-time dedicated elder in the community for women who are residing on their own is also needed, as indigenous women's failures in the community are often tied to their inability to access these cultural interventions outside the institution or section 81 facility.
Recent and current events in the justice system this week illustrate the importance of having more indigenous staff members and parole board members if you have high numbers of incarcerated indigenous women. CSC clearly needs a radical approach, and all options should be considered, including re-engaging our community partners and supporting them to offer alternatives to the one-size-fits-all CSC program model. There is an overreliance on actuarial tools with regard to program referrals and a movement away from allowing parole officers to exercise professional discretion.
CSC should also focus not just on treating indigenous women as victims, but on empowering them and treating them as survivors. Treatment interventions noted above should reflect this.
The answer to the committee's question is, of course, to ensure that these women never reach the federal system, through better use of diversion programs, increasing education regarding indigenous issues among professionals in the justice system, making Gladue reports more available during sentencing, and working with the provinces on child welfare issues.
However, once these women are incarcerated, CSC must ensure that no further harm is done and that the women we work with are in a better position than when they first came to us. In many instances, staff are overwhelmed, under-resourced, afraid to speak out, and not confident that they will be listened to by the organization.
I've often said that parole officers and other members of the case management team work in the shadows where many people fear to tread, exposing ourselves as we are witness to unbelievable trauma and pain. Nevertheless, staff believe in the importance of the work we do. We simply need the tools, training, resources, and support from management to assist these women to reassert their roles as mothers, aunts, daughters, and healthy, productive, positive members of the community.
I believe there's a recognition by CSC that change is required; however, it will take time and a radical change in approach for this to occur.