Good afternoon, everybody.
I will make my remarks in French and English—in both languages.
Thank you very much for inviting the Canadian Human Rights Commission to take part in your study on indigenous women in the federal justice and correctional systems.
Allow me to introduce my colleague Fiona Keith, Senior Counsel for the Commission. She is here to answer some of your questions, as I am.
From 2009 to 2015, I sat as the first independent chair of disciplinary hearings (independent person chair disciplinary hearings) at federal correctional facilities in Quebec. In that capacity, I had to rule on institutional charges against inmates. That experience, coupled with my current role as Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is the basis of my testimony today.
My experiences on the ground confirm what the commission has long recognized, including through the complaints it receives, that vulnerable groups are disproportionately subject to unfair treatment while in a correctional facility.
Indigenous women in prison have often been victims of a toxic combination of racism, violence, sexual assault and other forms of abuse. In addition, their troubled past often causes them to suffer both physically and psychologically, and this suffering frequently contributes to the reasons for their incarceration. However, once incarcerated and without support, they experience difficulties related to their past that manifest in difficult behaviours.
In response to those behaviours, correctional services can use nothing but isolation, yet many studies have confirmed its devastating effects. As a result, those indigenous women, many of whom are victims of abuse and suffer from depression, post-traumatic shock, and so on, find themselves isolated and deprived of all human contact. This triggers a destructive cycle that the correctional service seems unable to stop for the moment. This cycle often ends tragically and sometimes even has fatal consequences.
In 2003 the commission issued a report entitled “Protecting Their Rights: a Systemic Review of Human Rights in Correctional Services for Federally Sentenced Women”. The report made 19 recommendations and continues to be cited in recent court decisions.
The first recommendation I would like to bring to your attention is that the Correctional Service of Canada act immediately to address the issues concerning the disproportionate number of federally sentenced indigenous women classified as maximum security by, first, immediately reassessing the classification of all indigenous women currently classified as maximum security, using a gender-responsive classification tool, and second, by changing the blanket policy of not allowing maximum security women at the healing lodge.
Fifteen years later, many of our 19 recommendations have not been implemented. The same can be said for recommendations in numerous other reports.
Three years ago, the commission held a series of round table discussions with indigenous women from across Canada. We have copies of this report; it's going to be available in both languages for all of you.
These round tables helped us learn about the difficulties that indigenous women face in the justice system. The participants identified 21 barriers to accessing justice, including the complexity of legal processes, language barriers, lack of awareness, lack of support, and lack of legal aid and other resources.
They also expressed a profound distrust of police and the judicial process. When they are the victims of crime, they don't feel safe going to the police for help. This could explain why only a small fraction of the commission's discrimination complaints come from female indigenous inmates in the federal corrections system.
Let's be honest: to be an indigenous woman in prison is to be invisible, to be ignored, to be denied their humanity, to be forgotten. We have forgotten them, because the findings from 10, 15, 20 years ago continue to hold true. Nothing has been done. These women continue to be ignored.
Indigenous women continue to be classified at higher security levels, based on classification tools and processes that do not reflect their unique characteristics. They continue to be placed in segregation and other forms of isolation at disproportionate rates, despite their histories of trauma and violence. They fail to have proper access to appropriate mental health services and cultural and spiritual supports. They continue to experience—even more, actually, within prison walls—the harassment, violence, misogyny, that marked their lives prior to their incarceration. Indigenous women have higher rates of recidivism because the corrections system fails to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, which is compounded by the lack of support they receive after release.
As very few recommendations have been implemented, litigation has proven to be the only way to make change—court-ordered change. In the case of indigenous women, this creates a double disadvantage. The court system is intimidating for most individuals, and even more so for indigenous women who have little to no support to navigate what can be a lengthy, costly, and very stressful process.
Despite all this, I remain optimistic that there is a genuine desire at the political level to make improvements, to do better. I hope that this government will start implementing the many recommendations that have been made over the years.
With that said, based on what indigenous women told us, here is what needs to happen to improve indigenous women's experience within the federal and correctional systems.
First, build trust. Indigenous women who have been victims of crime must feel that it's safe to come forward.
Second, provide support and assistance wherever indigenous women are. Services must find them: in their community or urban centre, at the police station, before a judge, in a remand centre, in a federal institution, and on release.