Speech by Senator Kim Pate on the Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Inquiry—Debate Adjourned

December 8, 2016


The Honourable Senator Kim Pate :

Honourable senators, thank you very much.

Honourable senators, as this is my first speech in the upper chamber of our Parliament —

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Pate: Thank you very much. I wish to begin by acknowledging that we have the privilege of being and meeting on the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples.

Today I am both honoured and humbled to rise in this chamber to call attention to the circumstances of some of the most marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized in our country and to encourage us to focus in particular on the increasing overrepresentation of indigenous women in Canadian prisons.

Honourable senators, I take this opportunity to speak in anticipation of International Human Rights Day, which will be on December 10, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year's Human Rights Day campaign is "Stand up for someone's rights today." It underscores the declaration's fundamental proposition that each one of us — everywhere and at all times — is entitled to the full range of human rights and that it is everyone's responsibility to take a stand, to defend the fundamental human rights of those at risk of discrimination and violence. By so doing, we reaffirm our humanity.

I believe that by being welcomed into this place, a forum like no other, I have been afforded an incredible opportunity to champion the issues that I hold dear. And it is my intention to do just that, for I firmly believe that it is our responsibility to work with and for those whose voices are too often not heard or, worse still, silenced or ignored.

Honourable senators, the overrepresentation of indigenous peoples in our prison system, particularly the overrepresentation of indigenous women, is rooted in the historical systemic discrimination that is our racist and sexist legacy of colonization.

Indeed, every day of the 35 years that I have had the opportunity and the privilege to walk in but, most importantly, to be able to walk out of prisons for youth, prisons for men and prisons for women, I'm painfully reminded of the impact of colonization on our indigenous peoples.

I would like to take the opportunity to commend all indigenous leaders for the vital work they have been doing on behalf of our indigenous peoples, most especially that of our former and our current esteemed colleagues. Thank you.

Honourable senators, so many of you have devoted yourselves to addressing the adverse impact of discriminatory child welfare and protection services, the lack of economic, educational and employment opportunities, and many other serious issues related to discrimination, whether in policing, prosecutorial, immigration, judicial and correctional practices endured by many people, but most particularly those endured by our First Nations, Inuit and Metis men women and children. I consider it a privilege to join each of you here in this place as we continue this important work.

Honourable senators, the facts I am going to present to you today may be tough to hear. They are not convenient, but they are our reality, and they must be shared. This conversation must be had, and I can think of no better place than right here in the Senate of Canada.

For the past 35 years, I have often found myself driven either by rage or despair as I've tried to address that which I could not and will never accept, that which I observed all around me, the suffering that I've had to witness first-hand. I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share just a few of those examples.

I'll start with "D," an indigenous woman who was forcibly removed from her family and adopted out of birth, in front of whose segregation cells I spent countless hours over the better part of two decades, kneeling so that I might talk to her through a meal slot, pleading with her to stop slashing all parts of her body, trying to gouge out her eyes, or to smash her head into cement wall. "D" asked my mother if she could write to her and call her "mum," after my mother generously gave up her time and went to the prison for women in Kingston, just before it closed, when there was nobody left to provide services to the women. It was about this time of year, and my mum, who was a hairdresser, had come with me to do the women's hair so that the very few who might receive visitors and the rest who might help to entertain them could feel better despite being in prison over the holidays. "D" had no family, and aside from her lawyers, Elizabeth Fry volunteers and former prisoners, she was devoid of community support.

We were able to convince a filmmaker to produce a documentary about her life, and the publicity around that film — Sentencedto Life/Sentence Vie — put pressure on the correctional service to transfer her to a psychiatric hospital, which is where she needed to be.

The result? After more than 25 years in prison, most of it in segregation, she commenced her gradual integration into the community from the hospital. She eventually moved out the Elizabeth Fry-run transition home where she had been living and now lives in the community, where, the last time I visited, the owner of the local dépanneur where she lives thinks she is joking when she tries to convince him that she used to be considered a dangerous criminal.

Then there is "L," another indigenous woman, another member of the stolen generation, who was in fact labelled a "dangerous offender" based on what she said and what the Court of Appeal of Alberta said she wrote, but not actually anything she did. I first met her when she was 12. She will soon be 44. She had been raped and then prostituted. When she anesthetized herself to those realities by drinking, child welfare authorities were notified. When she resisted state intervention, police were called. She was charged with assaulting child care workers and police when she fought those who subsequently executed strip searches. Brilliant and stunning, she was penalized for fighting back and resisting the violence to which she was subjected on the street, in our communities, as well as at the hands of the state. For instance, when she — correctly, as it turned out — identified one of the prison psychologists as a sexual predator, she ended up barred from treatment and then segregated for allegedly threatening him by making those allegations. It took six and half years to overturn her sentence and designation as dangerous offender. She spent all but six months of that time segregated. This past July 1 marked the seventeenth anniversary of release from prison.

Ten years in custody, 20 shock treatments, countless suicide attempts and incidents of self-injury have left their irreparable physical and psychological scars, but she now volunteers in her community and mentors other young people. She is a trusted advocate and adviser and has prevented many others from experiencing the horrors that were hers.

Last night, as I was walking home, she called me, as she has nearly every day for the last 25 years, and asked me how "senatoring" is going and suggested I take all of you to jail next time I go. I said I'd be happy to do that. She also urged me to seek your support to free our friend "S."

"S," also an indigenous woman, is currently the longest serving woman prisoner. She and I are the same age, but our opportunities and consequent life circumstances are not at all the same. After 10 years of horrendous physical, sexual and psychological abuse in residential school, she was rendered easy prey for a number of abusive men. Initially jailed as an accomplice to her abusive partner's drug trafficking, in prison she accumulated many more convictions and has spent most of the past three decades in segregation in many different prisons, in torturous isolation that generated her now disabling mental health issues. There is so much more I could say about the injustices she has endured and the stark reality of her lived inequality.

And then there are the children. Women describe the separation from their children as the hardest part of doing time. I am still moved every time I think of one particular visit to prison with two young girls. It is the first and, tragically, remains the only visit to the indigenous woman, mother to one of the girls and aunt to the other, from whom they were separated as infants. I was privileged to introduce them also to their first experience on an airplane. I can't tell you what it was like as we were taking off, ascending up through and over top of the cloud cover, to hear them start oohing and whispering to each other. Eventually the eldest turned to me and whispered, "Kim, Auntie Kim, are we in heaven?"

It is women and children like these, as well as many local, regional, national and international anti-violence, anti-poverty, anti-racism, women's, human rights, indigenous advocates and activists, as well as academics and allies whose expertise and experiences underscore the gravity of this issue.

Many have come before me in calling attention to the need for a collaborative effort to address human rights abuses happening in our midst and in our collective names. For instance, like other provincial and federal inquiries, the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically call to action number 30, calls upon federal, provincial and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.

Our Prime Minister has also mandated our first indigenous Minister of Justice to reduce the rate of incarceration of indigenous peoples and has called on her to work collaboratively to address the gaps in services to Aboriginal peoples and those with mental health issues.

These are indeed tall orders, but they are not unachievable.

In fact, although I was in the Joliette prison for women when she visited this place on December 6, I was pleased to hear that our Minister of Justice acknowledged that we need to do better and make concerted efforts to redress and remedy past and current wrongs.

According to the most recent report from the Auditor General, indigenous women make up 36 per cent, more than one in three, of imprisoned women in federal prisons in Canada. Countless other reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission as well as mounting court decisions also confirm the troubling fact that indigenous women, especially those with disabling mental health issues, are the fastest-growing prison population in this country, despite the reality that they make up only 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the Canadian population.

In fact, in his 2013 report, Spirit Matters, the Correctional Investigator spoke of a whopping 85.7 per cent increase over the prior decade when it came to the rate of incarceration of indigenous women in federal prisons. That's almost 86 per cent.

Equally troubling is the fact that 91 per cent of the indigenous women serving sentences of two or more years have histories of physical and/or sexual abuse. In addition, most live in poverty and have limited educational and employment opportunities, and the majority are mothers.

Honourable senators, by and large it is not those who pose the greatest risk to public safety who are being imprisoned for longer periods of time. It is our most vulnerable, our most marginalized, our victimized.

According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in 2010, the annual cost of incarcerating a woman in a federal penitentiary, taking into account all of the costs, was $348,000. Most of the women who are jailed are poor and are the sole support of their children.

When they are jailed, their children are too often taken into care. I believe that we can, and that we must, address the human, social and fiscal costs of our current problematic use of the criminal and penal systems to address what are actually issues related to social and economic inequality and injustice, such as poverty, homelessness, colonization, and violence against women and those suffering from mental health issues.

Indeed, in 2010, Kevin Page, then the Parliamentary Budget Officer, identified a $7 million price tag for what Louise Arbour called the correctional interference and mismanagement of not all but just one indigenous woman's sentence. That is $7 million for one indigenous woman's sentence.

I leave it to all of us to imagine the difference that $7 million could make had it been invested instead in community-based supports and services such as child care, housing, mental health and social services, guaranteed liveable incomes and other economic and educational endeavours.

Jails are not, nor should we accept that they continue to be used as, substitute shelters for battered women, nor are they treatment or mental health centres, and they most certainly are not appropriate responses to inadequate housing and social services.

In terms of human, social and fiscal costs, prisons are the least effective and the most costly means of responding to substantive inequality and injustice.

Honourable senators, we have to ask ourselves some very difficult questions, but first we must start an honest dialogue.

In this new role, I look forward to building capacity and forging partnerships with you to identify and address the many facets of this very serious problem. I urge us to work together and ask ourselves the key question: Where do we go from here?

It is our responsibility to investigate the interconnectedness of the economic, social, legal and political decisions that continue to contribute to and affect the increasing overrepresentation of indigenous women in our prisons.

Honourable senators, I'm under no illusion that any of us achieves anything alone. This is why I rose today to call upon you, my new colleagues, and to request that you join in this collaborative effort to stem the tide of imprisoning some of our most disadvantaged.

I will conclude today with a quote that was shared with me over 25 years ago by another woman who from her isolation in a segregated cell touched me deeply when she urged me to heed the words of Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman from Australia, when she said:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting our time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Honourable senators, I ask that we work together to bring to light truths that have long been ignored. I ask that we work together to remedy this desperate situation. I ask that we work together to give a voice to those who have too long been rendered voiceless. Thank you for your patience.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!