Canada Fails to Assist Jailed Aboriginal Women

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

An advocate for Canada's Aboriginal women chides the government for neglecting a marginalized population. Aboriginal women account for 33 percent of federally-sentenced female offenders in the country.

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Over Policed and Under Protected

The high rate of incarceration does not necessarily indicate Aboriginal women commit more--and more serious--crimes, said Rexe, director of the association's Sisters in Spirits, a research and policy program that focuses on missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Rather, they are constantly over policed and under protected.

Rexe noted that at least 520 Aboriginal women have been reported missing or found murdered throughout Canada over the past 40 years, yet in many of these cases police failed to take the family's missing persons report seriously and continue to treat victims as criminals.

Many young women find themselves in conflict with the law because they are drawn into prostitution or coerced into acting as drug mules by exploitative older men, Rexe said, suggesting such women should not be criminalized. Once young women have entered correctional institutions, she added, their chances of becoming affiliated with criminal gangs increase, raising their risks of committing further offenses after their release.

While many Aboriginal communities wish to find solutions among themselves, resources and funding are often simply not available, Rexe said.

In addition to chiding the government for failing to appoint a special deputy commissioner, Mann pointed to delays in the Correctional Service of Canada's implementation of national programs designed specifically to address the rehabilitation needs of Aboriginal offenders that incorporate traditional and spiritual practices.

The process of hiring and training Aboriginal elders to give guidance to female inmates was seen to be "lagging without adequate rationale."

Mann also noted that Aboriginal women continue to be disproportionately segregated and placed into higher security institutions than non-Aboriginals. Aboriginal women accounted for 45 percent of women in maximum security prisons in September 2007, the report said, while they made up only 18 percent of the female population at minimum security prisons.

Parole Less Likely

The report added that Aboriginal offenders, particularly women, are less likely to receive parole and are more likely to serve longer prison terms.

Jerry Adams, executive director of Vancouver's Circle of Eagles Lodge Society, an organization run by Aboriginals to assist the reintegration of ex-offenders, said the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the prison system is part of a cycle of poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, violence, homelessness and despair.

"It's a multi-faceted problem," Adams said. "It's everything under the sun, so some of these women have no hope for success in our community."

For many, he said, the problems stem from Canada's history of residential schools, when generations of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families between the 1870s and 1970s and educated at government-funded, Christian church-administered schools aimed at assimilating them. At these notoriously discriminatory schools, many former students have claimed they were physically and sexually abused, forcibly confined and stripped of their traditional languages and culture.

Rexe describes the echoing effects of that long period of discrimination in the social effects of women's incarceration.

Families are fragmented, children are disconnected from their mothers and women, once released from prison, struggle to reintegrate into their communities, she said.

"When we go back to traditional understandings of Aboriginal women's roles in society…women are the caregivers. They are at the core of the community and the family," she said. "By disconnecting women from the community and the family, there is a lot of chaos."

Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada.

For more information:

Good Intentions, Disappointing Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections

Correctional Service of Canada Aboriginal Initiatives:

Native Women's Association of Canada:

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