Concern, anger after popular Headingley women's jail inmate beadwork program abruptly halted

·3 min read

There is growing concern and anger, after a popular program that saw inmates at a women’s jail in Headingley create and sell beadwork was abruptly halted, and after inmates were told that now any beadwork they create inside the jail cannot leave the facility.

“Beading is providing healing for these women, and now a lot of these women are absolutely devastated,” Winnipeg resident Sandra Burling said on Monday.

Back in 2020, Burling began working with inmates at the Women's Correctional Centre in Headingley, to help them to promote and sell traditional Indigenous beadwork that they created while incarcerated, and since then dozens of incarcerated women have been creating and selling their pieces through the program dubbed Women Helping Women Beadwork.

But Burling says she was told by inmates that signs were posted at the jail last week informing them beadwork made in the facility could no longer be shipped out either to be sold, or to be given out as a gift.

“This was an outlet that allowed them to feel productive and inspired, while some of them sit in a cell for 21 hours a day,” Burling said.

“It’s very depressing for a lot of them, and I worry this will be a real step backwards in their healing.”

According to Burling, inmates have been told very little and are so far “in the dark” about why the sudden changes were put in place.

“It’s so hard to tell what actually went on, so I have to go from what the girls are telling me, which is that the signs say it’s being done for their health and safety,” she said.

“It’s all very confusing.”

Burling said she feels “devastated” because she knows how important this program was to so many of the inmates.

She added that with a high number of inmates at the jail identifying as Indigenous, the program was helping women by connecting them to culture.

“When we are talking about rehabilitating people and healing people, you would think they would be supportive of something that inmates are doing that is positive for them,” Burling said.

“A lot of these women tell me that before this they never paid any attention to their culture, so if we make all this progress, and then they just put an end to it, it doesn’t make any sense.”

She said she knows that many of the women were using money they were making through their program to help support their families and, in many cases, their children.

“These are women that often have nothing, and for some this was providing the only avenue they have to help support their children,” she said.

“I truly feel these women have been wronged.”

In a Twitter posts on Sunday, NDP MLA and longtime advocate for the rights of Indigenous women Nahanni Fontaine blasted the move, and called it “unacceptable,” and said she was planning to discuss her concerns with Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen this week.

“Beading is medicine to our women. Beading is healing to our women. Beading is empowering to our women. Beading is connection to the Matriarchs who came before us,” Fontaine said in her Twitter post.

“So why is the Women’s Correctional Centre taking away the beading program from Indigenous women housed there? Taking away Indigenous women’s ability to bead is taking away our women’s right to culture and healing.

“Our women have so little already. This is unacceptable.”

The Winnipeg Sun reached out on Monday to the office of the Justice Minister for comment, but had not received a response.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun