Canada's Original Think Tank

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons — Inquiry

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons — Inquiry

Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons — Inquiry

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: 

Your Honour, with your permission and the Senate’s permission, I will speak while sitting.

As you will see, this matter has been adjourned in the name of Senator Lankin. She has kindly agreed that I can speak now and then the adjournment will remain in the name of Senator Lankin.

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on Senator Pate’s inquiry regarding the overrepresentation of women and particularly indigenous women in Canadian prisons.

Before beginning, I wish to thank Senator Pate for starting this inquiry. She has worked tirelessly for over 30 years on issues related to the rights of prisoners, particularly for indigenous women.

Senator Pate truly understands the difficulties that these women face. I am happy to see that experience reflected in this inquiry today.

I speak on this issue because the situation today is dire for indigenous women in our prison system. Currently, indigenous women make up 36 per cent of women in Canadian federal prisons, despite making up only 2 to 3 per cent of the Canadian population. Out of those women serving federal sentences of two years or more, 91 per cent have histories of physical or sexual abuse.

This is unacceptable. These women have been denied their culture, family and community. Instead of enjoying healing, education, employment and equality among their peers, these women are losing any hope of a better future. This is why I’m adding my voice to Senator Pate’s call for change.

As a parliamentarian, I believe it is my duty to speak out against the inequities these women face and to expose the factors that caused them. However, in this instance, there is no single cause behind the over-representation of indigenous women in our prison system. Instead, this incarceration is the reflection of a variety of issues, including race, poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, loss of identity and abuse, all affecting indigenous women. Together, they place these women at a distinct disadvantage in our society that often sees them encountering our justice system.

The same is true for immigrant women. Much like the indigenous women, they often struggle with race, poverty, lack of education, gender inequality and abuse, and are disproportionately placed into prisons as a result. To give an idea of the parallels between immigrant and indigenous women, I would like to share the story of two women who were marginalized, abused and criminalized by our justice system.

The first story is of Fliss Cramman, whom Senator Oh mentioned when he presented his amendment to Bill C-6 in the spring. In his speech, he discussed her difficulty gaining citizenship. I would like to focus on what happened after, when our justice system failed her.

Fliss was born in Britain but moved to Canada when she was 8 years old. When she turned 11, her father put her into foster care and she became a ward of the state. Because Bill C-6 was not enacted at the time, she was unable to gain Canadian citizenship independently. As Fliss grew up, she experienced increasing marginalization, years of sexual violence and suffered from chronic pain and drug dependency. Eventually, Fliss became so desperate that she joined a scheme to sell illegal drugs through a Facebook page, a venture that earned her a conviction in 2014, and saw Fliss serve 27 months in prison.

As a result of the drug conviction, the Canada Border Services Agency moved to deport her to Britain, despite the fact she had not lived there since she was a young child and despite the fact she had four young daughters here in Canada. When Fliss was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery due to a perforated bowel in August 2016, Fliss’s situation became even worse. Although she was barely alive, could not move and was often left unconscious from the pain, the CBSA decided that she was to be shackled to her hospital bed and kept under guard to prevent her from potentially escaping before the deportation order could be executed.

Fliss was rescued from this horrifying treatment only thanks to determined pleas for humanitarian assistance, sympathetic press coverage and testimony about her significant mental, health and addiction issues.

Thanks to the tireless work of her doctors, lawyers and community advocates, Fliss Cramman had been given some hope for a different future. However, if they had not helped her, the child welfare, judicial and immigration systems would have doomed Fliss to imprisonment and deportation. While the people who helped Fliss did incredible work, our justice system should not have failed her and put her in this desperate situation in the first place.

My second story, involving a woman only known as “A,” further emphasizes just how important it is to consider the realities of disadvantaged women.

When “A” was convicted of an indictable offence and imprisoned, she learned she was not a Canadian citizen. Instead, she was a citizen of the United Kingdom as her family emigrated from there when she was two years old. When her father moved the family to Canada, he never applied for her Canadian citizenship and eventually abandoned his family.

As a result of her immigration status, “A” is detained in custody pending her deportation. Pakistan will not accept her, despite the fact that she was born there, because the region she came from was part of India when she was born. Britain will not accept her either. As a result, “A” remains stateless, separated from her five children, three of whom have autism. “A” remains in legal limbo in a system that is virtually devoid of hope, much less rehabilitation or legal recourse.

The fact that stories like this can happen in our great country — which portrays itself as a just society with its First Nations, Metis, Inuit and immigrant peoples — is unacceptable. Why are they left out of any real, equitable and meaningful participation in society as a whole? There is simply no good reason for disadvantaged women to be victimized, criminalized and then abandoned in prisons. This injustice only costs us as a society.

In 2010 the Parliamentary Budget Office calculated the cost to keep one woman in a federal penitentiary at $348,000 per year. Approximately $235 million is being expended per year to jail adult women in federal jails alone.

Honourable senators, we need to address these inequities as well as the human, social and fiscal costs of our current criminal justice and penal systems. If we supported women who came to Canada from abroad instead of victimizing them, our country could look incredibly different. If we spent less money on jails and incarceration and invested more in our communities and schools, in mental and physical health care, in addressing poverty, racial and social inequality and homelessness, the injustices I discussed may never have happened. Instead of being prisoners, the women I have discussed could have started their lives as full participants in our diverse nation.

Senator Pate has asked us to cast a light on the reality of many of our sisters. We are tasked with identifying and seeing these truths, and with taking action, as those of us in this chamber are privileged to do.

Honourable senators, I have shared but two brief stories of women whose lives could and should have been better. Together we can help shine a light on the injustices that have criminalized and imprisoned our sisters, and work to devote the necessary resources to create an equitable and just society going forward. That is why I support Senator Pate’s inquiry, and I urge you all to support her on this very important inquiry.