Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut December 12, 2016 - 10:00 am

Too many poor, traumatized Aboriginal women in jail: senator

Long-time prison rights activist Kim Pate raises issue in the Senate

THOMAS ROHNER
Kim Pate, former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates for women involved in the justice system, is now a Canadian senator raising prisoner's rights in the Senate. (HANDOUT PHOTO)
Kim Pate, former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates for women involved in the justice system, is now a Canadian senator raising prisoner's rights in the Senate. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Indigenous women who have experienced sexual and physical abuse are grossly, and increasingly, overrepresented in Canada’s federal jails— and that must change, Canada’s newest senator and prisoner rights advocate Kim Pate, said in the Senate.

Pate raised what’s called a notice of inquiry in the Senate Dec. 8.

The notice serves as a signal to other senators of a topic Pate wants to discuss: “the circumstances of some of the most marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized in Canada,” particularly Indigenous women.

Other senators can then join in that conversation, as Toronto Senator Ratna Omidvar already has, Pate told Nunatsiaq News in a Dec. 9 interview.

If other senators do not join the conversation, the notice dies on the floor after 15 sitting days.

Federal prisons increasingly house the poor, disadvantaged and other people Canadian society struggles to include, Pate said Dec. 9.

That includes those who identify as Indigenous, female, suffering from a mental illness, elderly or homeless.

“It’s not accidental that our jails aren’t filled with wealthy people. That doesn’t mean wealthy people don’t sometimes do things that are incredibly harmful to people. Criminal law targets those who have the least.”

The difference is our current correctional system is designed to ensure wealthy people are far less likely to be arrested or jailed, as the numbers show, Pate said.

For example, in a Dec. 1 news release, Pate drew attention to the “outrageous” findings, “unfortunately not a surprise,” in a recent report from Canada’s Auditor General.

That report, called Preparing Indigenous Offenders for Release—Correctional Service Canada, found that federal jails fail in their legal obligation to provide timely programs and rehabilitation support to Indigenous offenders.

The Auditor General also found that Canada’s Indigenous population makes up three percent of the national population, but about 26 per cent of the federal prison population, according to 2015-16 numbers.

“In particular, Indigenous women make up 36 per cent of female offenders in custody and are the fastest growing population in the federal correctional service,” the report said.

What’s more, a 2013 report showed the rate of Indigenous women in federal prisons increased by over 85 per cent in a decade, Pate told senators Dec. 8.

And more than 90 per cent of those women have histories of physical or sexual abuse or both, while most lived in poverty before their arrest, Pate added.

The senator provided her Senate colleagues with a few personal stories from her 35 years as an advocate for prisoners’ rights.

For example, Pate spent “countless hours” talking to one Indigenous woman through the meal slot of a segregation cell door, “pleading with her to stop slashing all parts of her body, trying to gouge out her eyes, or to smash her head into a cement wall.”

That woman asked Pate if she could write to Pate’s mother and call her “mum,” because the offender had no family left herself, Pate said.

Another Indigenous woman, the longest serving female prisoner in Canada, survived a decade of sexual abuse at a residential school and then was “rendered easy prey for a number of abusive men,” Pate said Dec. 8.

“She and I are the same age, but our opportunities and consequent life circumstances are not at all the same.”

Pate told Nunatsiaq News Dec. 9 that systemic discrimination in Canada, reflected in the statistics on federal prison population, is part of the racist and sexist legacy of colonization.

“It’s important that we actually embrace, not just in a rhetorical way, but really embrace, the values that many of us like to think are Canadian values, like equality, integrity—and equality.”

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