A new report released by the Native Women’s Association of Canada draws a strong connection between Aboriginal girls and women serving time and the inter-generational impacts of Indian residential schools.
“I don’t think we’ve had a report in the past that puts all of these things together in one way, drawing clearly those links between residential schools… and incarcerations,” said Fiona Meyer-Cook, project lead and research and policy analyst for NWAC.
Gender Matters; building strength in reconciliation was released last month by Ottawa-based NWAC and Justice for Girls, a British Columbia organization. Work on the report began in January 2011 and focused on Aboriginal women and girls who had been in conflict with the law.
The report included a section on residential schools in light of the work undertaken by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was struck in 2007 as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
“We wanted to ensure that women who were hard to reach, in particular, were heard,” said Meyer-Cook. “We knew that those who were in jail were often impacted by residential schools.”
Many of those incarcerated, she said, were in the child welfare system and many were inter-generational residential school survivors.
That section, entitled Arrest the Legacy: from Residential Schools to Prisons, presents some harsh realities.
“One thing that was disturbing to us was how much Aboriginal girls are over-criminalized,” said Asia Czapska, board member with Justice for Girls. The numbers of incarcerated girls and women are climbing. Federal statistics indicate that 44 per cent of all girls in youth custody are Aboriginal while 34 per cent of women incarcerated are Aboriginal. Two-thirds of the women in prison are single mothers, which means that the majority of their children will go into the foster system.
The findings of Arrest the Legacy are based on dialogues that occurred in Yellowknife, Hay River, Saskatoon, Thunder Bay and Vancouver. What researchers learned was “disturbing,” said Czapska.
Not only did Aboriginal girls and women claim they were kept in poor conditions, but they were also spoken to and addressed with demeaning language. And those who came from fly-in communities tended to be in custody one to one-and-a-half years before they were sentenced.
“The brutal legacy of the residential school system as well as current discrimination with the child welfare system and the prison system has created now this huge human rights breach where Aboriginal girls are so over incarcerated,” said Czapska.
The answer isn’t prison terms, Meyer-Cook says, but for the federal, provincial and territorial governments to put money into early intervention programs and better educational opportunities.
The report outlines a number of recommendations, including culturally-relevant programs; inclusion of reports on background before a judge makes sentencing; and appropriate and timely health care while incarcerated.
The report also notes programs that have been implemented in different provinces and territories which are working well.
“They really need to be (implemented) across the board,” said Meyer-Cook. “There will be some (social programs) that will be more relevant provincially or territorially.”
The report will be presented to the TRC and Meyer-Cook is hopeful that the TRC will take into consideration not only the gender-specific recommendations in the NWAC report but will include gender-specific language in its own report.
“We would want to make sure they just don’t say, ‘Aboriginal people,’ generally, because there are conditions for women and girls that we really tried to capture,” said Meyer-Cook.
While the numbers of Aboriginal girls and women being incarcerated is on the increase, Meyer-Cook is optimistic that new programs and new funding will help address the concerns.