Learning from each other with Senator Kim Pate

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Before her appointment to the Senate of Canada last fall, the Honourable Kim Pate spent 35 years advocating for women prisoners’ rights. She continues to do so and shared many insights and ideas in Halifax at a course on issues of criminalization and imprisonment in Canada.

The Society presented the six-hour seminar in January 2017 to lawyers and interested members of the public, who participated in person in the Society’s classroom and also by webinar.

Senator Pate is a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. A noted human rights expert, she was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2015 and was also a part-time professor in the Common Law section at the University of Ottawa. She was named to the Senate last October by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and sits as an independent member.

A key focus of her seminar covered challenges and barriers faced by Indigenous and other racialized women inmates.

“The overrepresentation of our Indigenous peoples is painfully obvious,” Senator Pate told the workshop. “By the time we’re finished this year, it’s estimated that one in two women in federal custody will be a racialized woman.”

“The overrepresentation of our Indigenous peoples (in prisons) is painfully obvious.”   

She reviewed relevant case law including the landmark Gladue decision in 1999 from the Supreme Court of Canada, which advised lower courts to consider an Indigenous offender’s background in sentencing decisions. 

According to Statistics Canada’s website, “Aboriginal adults are overrepresented in admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services, as they accounted for one-quarter of admissions in 2014/2015 while representing about three per cent of the Canadian adult population.”

While in Halifax, Senator Pate – who earned her law degree at Dalhousie in 1984 – also gave a public lecture at the Schulich School of Law on matters related to imprisonment and the correctional system.

At the Society’s workshop, attendees heard briefly about the absence of plain English with respect to words many government officials and employees use when talking about prison life. The frequent use of jargon, acronyms and euphemisms is counterproductive, participants were told.

Even the term “corrections” presents a problem, said Darlene MacEachern,executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Cape Breton. “You don’t become corrected in prison. You don’t become reformed in prison,” she said. “You become angry and institutionalized.”

In January, Statistics Canada reported a significant increase over the past 10 years in the number of adults in this province’s jails who are awaiting trial. “Six provinces and territories, led by Nova Scotia (68 per cent) . . . had, on average, a higher proportion of adults in remand than in sentenced custody in 2014/2015,” the government agency said.

During her seminar, Senator Pate also introduced the screening of a National Film Board documentary about Diane Charron, an Indigenous woman who began a life sentence in prison in 1981. A troubled young woman with severe psychiatric problems, Charron had been disengaged from her own life, the seminar heard, but with much help and support she was eventually reintegrated into society.

“She’s now living in the community,” Pate told the workshop. “She was in supportive housing – was in a Fry transition house for about three (or) four years – and now lives on her own in a semi-independent living situation.”

In addition to inmates’ mental health issues, Correctional Service Canada says research shows about two thirds of federally sentenced women in provincial jails are mothers, and about two thirds of those prisoners were the primary and sole caregivers in their households.

In March 2016, the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended increasing participation in mother-child programs in federal prisons – particularly in minimum- to medium-security prisons, where 70 per cent of inmates are moms to children under age 18, The Canadian Press reported last year.

Senator Pate concluded her talk by encouraging participants who are advocating for women in the penal system to use the resources available to them, including on-the-record reports filed in case histories. “So, if you’ve got a client (who’s alleging things), bring their story that they’ve told, but also back it up with those documents,” she said.

Held January 12 and 13, the workshop was partly a professional development event for lawyers, an access to legal services tutorial, an examination of discrimination in the justice system, and a call to action for improving the administration of justice in Canada. Along with practitioners and advocates for women in prison, participants included a former prisoner, a Provincial Court judge, a provincial politician and a documentary filmmaker.

It was the Society’s second presentation in two months that brought together lawyers and other members of the community. In November 2016, the Society partnered with immigrant services and refugee groups on a workshop covering refugee law.

“This is an opportunity for us to work as lawyers, hand-in-hand with academics (and) community folks who are working on the ground every day, to learn from each other,” Emma Halpern, the Society’s Equity & Access Officer, told the January session. “I really hope this is the beginning, or maybe the growth, of a movement and a shift in the way lawyers see their role.” 

Article by Michael Lightstone, freelancer