Violence and over-incarceration a grim reality for Indigenous women

Healing lodge planned for Scarborough aims to help Indigenous women on their journey out of the correctional system, but some locals only fear crime



The statistics are grim: Indigenous women make up 4 per cent of the Canadian population yet account for roughly 40 per cent of the female federal prison population – and their incarceration rates are the fastest growing among any demographic in Canada. 

Between March 2009 and March 2018, the number of Indigenous women sentenced to federal prisons grew by 60 per cent. And yet most crimes committed by Indigenous women are non-violent in nature. The majority are property and drug offences and theft.

Kassandra Churcher, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says that the violent crimes that Indigenous women do commit are “defensive or reactive to violence directed at them, their children or a third party.” 

Churcher is among the experts quoted in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The inquiry was launched in 2016 to review the deaths of some 1,200 Indigenous women and girls and “to examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls.” Its final report was released June 3.

The report, which includes a deep dive into the incarceration of Indigenous women, points out that one reason Indigenous women are over-represented in the Canadian prison system is that they experience violence at a disproportionate rate. 

“There is a clear connection,” the report states, “between the violence that missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls experience and their over-incarceration.” 

In a timely initiative aimed at preventing Indigenous women in this province from becoming yet another statistic, Patti Pettigrew, president of the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society (TWHL), is spearheading efforts to open a healing lodge for Indigenous women on their journey out of the correctional system.  

The group is proposing a six-storey building at 2217 Kingston Road, currently a vacant lot, that will provide culturally specific services, such as housing, rehabilitation and healing, to transition Indigenous women back into society. The lodge will service Scarborough Southwest, a ward with the largest Indigenous population in Toronto. 

There will be space for 24 women in the mixed-use building, which will include 12 rooms with shared kitchen and bathroom units on the first three floors for women who are on bail, on parole or on probation. 

The top three floors, says Kelly Graham, a planner with SvN Architects and Planners, will contain 12 self-contained apartment units for “women who have graduated out of the healing program and have completed their bail or parole term and are moving toward more independent living, full rehabilitation and reintegration into society at large.” 

Currently, TWHL is in the process of seeking funding arrangements for those units. A sweat lodge is planned for the rear yard.

Pettigrew believes the healing lodge is absolutely crucial to the future and safety of Indigenous women in this city. 

“When Indigenous women come into this lodge, they will feel safe, they’ll be working through programming, they’ll have housing that they can transition into and they’re going to gain life skills,” she says. 

“A lot of our women who are incarcerated have gone through the foster care system, they’ve been separated from their culture and a lot of them are intergenerational residential school survivors. I look at it as bringing our women home.”

On June 12, Thunder Women Healing Lodge board members, representatives from SvN Architects + Planners and Ward 20 Councillor Gary Crawford held an open house at the Birchmount Community Centre to unveil plans for the healing lodge. 

With the building plans on display at the back of the gym and a drum circle of young men at the front – not to mention a man offering smudging – it was an opportunity for those attending to ask questions, both in front of the large and vocal audience and via question sheets that were handed out.

While concerns were raised about common planning issues like parking, the majority revolved around fears of crime moving in next door. 

A key problem, says Pettigrew, is that TWHL’s proposal is being confused with so-called healing lodges run by Correctional Services Canada, which are alternative minimum and medium correctional facilities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders. 

One participant asked if the facility would house offenders like Terri-Lynne McClintic. McClintic was convicted for the murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford and was moved to the CSC-operated Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge for Aboriginal Women on Nekaneet First Nation in southern Saskatchewan before public outcry caused her to be transferred back to a maximum security facility. 

Pettigrew explains that TWHL will have to follow Correctional Services Canada guidelines because there will be conditions on the release of women into their care, but “aside from that, we will do our own programming, we’ll be staffed, operated and owned by an Indigenous organization and people.”

Pettigrew says CSC will contact TWHL when a woman eligible for parole is interested in coming into the lodge. From there, TWHL will study the woman’s institutional record and interview her to determine her eligibility and readiness. The staff at TWHL, case managers and Elders in the community will decide who they’ll take in and then inform CSC of their decision.

But before any of that can happen, smaller community workshops between TWHL, SvN and Crawford will take place to hear from as many community members as possible before another public meeting scheduled for July 25. 

“There needs to be a place for facilities like TWHL and the work they do for Indigenous women,” says Crawford. 

Pettigrew adds that the proposed healing lodge will help make the community safer. 

“There are already people being released every day from the courts and jails that have no programming, have not been taught any life skills on how to reintegrate into society and have no supports – and they’re already in the community.” 

@nowtoronto

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