NWAC wishes to see a criminal justice system that works to remedy the social and economic effects of colonization, rather than criminalize them.
“One time when I was close to suicide I was told by Mista Hiya that my spirit was alive and it was housed in my physical shell. And from that hard time I learnt that my spirit was more important than my body because my body was controlled by the routine of life in prison. It was then the connectedness to being an Aboriginal woman, began. I began feeling good about myself even though I had only a few reasons to feel good. I understood there was a spirit within me that had the will to live.”
– Survey of Federally Sentenced Aboriginal Women in the Community. Conducted by the NWAC Task Force in 1990, the survey interviewed 39 Indigenous women who served federal time. The final report of the Task Force helped establish the first Healing Lodge in Canada, Okimaw Ohci. irst Nations participant during NWAC’s Northern Health Engagement Session in Watson Lake, Yukon, December 2018.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has long advocated for the rights of victimized, marginalized and criminalized Indigenous women, including those within the federal prison system. These women’s experiences of incarceration and institutional violence cannot be separated from the experience of colonialism and the colonial policies that continue to erase and oppress them.
Indigenous women are over-represented in the prison system, accounting for 37.6% of all federally-sentenced women in Canada.1 They are more likely than non-Indigenous women to be classified as medium and maximum-security risks, with Indigenous women currently making up 50% of maximum-security placements for women.2 These statistics clearly demonstrate that the Canadian justice system is not responding to the unique needs and circumstances of Indigenous women who come into conflict with the law.
The experience of imprisonment for Indigenous women is often traumatizing and dehumanizing. Prison is not a therapeutic environment and it will not heal the effects of colonization that have contributed to the over-criminalization of Indigenous women and their overrepresentation in federal custody. Efforts to address this inequity should prioritize community-based alternatives to incarceration, and supports and services that are gender-based, culturally-safe and trauma-informed.
Section 81 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, S. C. 1992, c.20 is intended to correct the over-representation of Indigenous people in federal prisons. The federal government found that what is appropriate for most prisoners may not be appropriate or effective for imprisoned Indigenous women. With Indigenous people facing racism in Canada and in the criminal justice system, the federal government wanted to find other options for Indigenous people outside of prisons. Section 81 is a law from the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, S. C. 1992, c.20 that allows a person to serve their federal sentence in an Indigenous community rather than a federal prison. The law enables federal prisons to work with Indigenous communities to provide services that are not available to Indigenous people in prisons. These services are more culturally appropriate and respond to the needs of Indigenous prisoners. Section 81provides Indigenous communities with greater control over criminal justice issues that affect them. It allows Indigenous prisoners the opportunity to have a community healing environment and keep in contact with their families. This is crucial for a person to return to society and live a productive life. Section 81 facilities offer Indigenous women the possibility of healing and personal growth while serving their time. Section 81 facilities, such as Healing Lodges, can actively promote Indigenous cultural practices, traditions and ceremonies. The law allows prisoners to connect with community resources, establish support networks and reduce anxiety associated with accessing the community following release.
Following the famous Gladue,  1 SCR 688 Supreme Court case, the Supreme Court said that prison should be used as a last resort for Indigenous people, and that judges must consider sentences other than incarceration. The criminal justice system fails Indigenous people and too many are sent to prison or jail. Restorative justice is an approach that works towards healing the harm committed by the offender, and rehabilitating them to avoid future harms. Restorative justice is a community-based holistic intervention for healing and resolving conflict between people who cause harm, victims of harm and other affected community members. By ordering community sentences that use restorative justice, the harm done to a community can be repaired. Convicted Indigenous people can attend programs that will help them live life successfully.
1. Abolish the practice of segregation by any name.
2. Meaningfully engage with S.81 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act so it may better fulfill its legislative intent.
3. Establish and support community-based, culturally safe and trauma-informed alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous women.
- Office of the Correctional Investigator, Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2016-2017 (Ottawa: OCI 28 June 2017) at 48
- Office of the Correctional Investigator, Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2016-2017 (Ottawa: OCI 28 June 2017) at 59