Laura Toney of Annapolis Valley First Nation watched from her cell as other Indigenous women in custody walked outside to join in a Mi'kmaw smudge ceremony.
It was 2017, and Toney, 45, was serving a four-month sentence for possession of a stolen vehicle at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S. That day, she said, she has been "in trouble," but guards had promised she'd be allowed to participate in the smudge. Except they never unlocked her cell.
"I felt like my culture was taken from me, ripped from me," she said in a recent interview, tears in her eyes.
Last month, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil publicly apologized for systematic racism in the justice system, particularly against Indigenous and Black Nova Scotians, and announced a plan to restructure the system and eliminate racism.
His pledge comes as new data shows that Indigenous women are vastly overrepresented in Nova Scotia jails, and both former inmates and advocates say that for too long the needs of those women have been neglected.
Last year, 134 Indigenous women were at some point incarcerated in provincial jails — more than double the year before and the highest number in at least four years, according to recently released figures from the Nova Scotia Justice Department.
Indigenous women represent less than six per cent of the female population in the province. But they accounted for 22 percent of all female inmates in 2019 — the highest proportion since at least 2016, according to the data.
While some inmates in provincial facilities are serving short sentences, many are simply being held while awaiting trial. Some may be eventually acquitted or have all charges dropped, but will still have spent weeks, months, or even longer in jail.
In Canada's five female federal prisons, where inmates are typically serving sentences of two years or more, the overrepresentation of Indigenous people is also worsening. The country's correctional investigator reported earlier this year that Indigenous women now account for 42 per cent of women in federal custody.
Mona O'Brien, a member of Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation, has worked for 10 years with the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network as an Indigenous court worker, and is involved with the Native Council of Nova Scotia, an off-reserve advocacy organization.
The nature of her work means first-hand experience with Indigenous people going through the justice system. One woman described her time at Central Nova in a way that O'Brien said she "won't soon forget."
"She said, 'Doing time in here is a waste of existence,'" recalled O'Brien.
O'Brien said that in order for Indigenous women to heal, it's important to help them get to the root of why they're in custody to begin with, and it's often based in trauma.
But how can trauma be addressed, healed and reversed? It could start by addressing the specific needs of Indigenous women, by Indigenous women, instead incarcerating them in a jail system that was established by colonizers, O'Brien said.
"It's a relationship, it has to come back to a relationship-building process," O'Brien said about Indigenous communities and the Department of Justice. "And I believe it has to be led by Indigenous communities — it can't be led by the province — because community knows community best."
O'Brien said the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network is sometimes able to offer alternatives to custody through a Gladue application. A Gladue report includes background on an Indigenous person and any life circumstances that led them to the court.
She said that can help decrease the rates of Indigenous women in custody, "but that's just a little piece of the pie."
One solution some advocates point to is healing lodges, which are designed as an alternative to prison, specifically for Indigenous offenders. Such facilities were proposed in the 1990s by the Native Women's Association of Canada, and the first opened outside Maple Creek, Sask., in 1995.
Healing lodges offer services and programs that encompass Indigenous traditions, values and beliefs. Healing lodge staff and supports, such as elders, aim to help offenders address factors that led them to incarceration, along with rehabilitation and preparation for transitioning back into society.
Healing lodges have the same supervision and restrictions that prisons do, although there is stronger emphasis placed upon healing through spiritual authority and communication than in prisons.
There are now nine healing lodges in Canada, some run by Corrections Canada and some by Indigenous organizations. Eight of them serve only federal inmates. Only Waseskun Healing Centre, a men's facility in Quebec, accepts inmates from provincial jails.
"When we look at Indigenous women, women are the heartbeat of our culture — women are connected and women are powerful — but when women are dealing with trauma and addictions, there's very little support in place for them to be more resilient," O'Brien said.
In 2015, only one of 40 women released on parole from Buffalo Sage Wellness House — a healing lodge managed by Native Counselling Services of Alberta in Edmonton — was convicted of a new charge.
Patricia Whyte, who is from the St. George's Mi'kmaw community in Newfoundland and is an Indigenous peer support worker in Nova Scotia with the Elizabeth Fry Society, said it's important that Indigenous women can be together.
Traditionally, she said, cultural ceremonies such as sweating and prayer are communal.
"We like to stick together," she said. "In our traditions, that's what women do — we stick with all of us."
But too often that's not what happens behind bars. The federal correctional investigator report from earlier this year found that Indigenous inmates are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement, and for longer periods of time, than non-Indigenous inmates. The report also found Indigenous inmates to be overrepresented in use-of-force incidents.
Whyte said it's historical fact that Indigenous peoples are more likely to be abused in confinement, given "the harm that's been caused on us not only by police, but the criminal justice system."
Toney, the women who was incarcerated at Central Nova, said that on top of being denied her spiritual right to smudge on number of occasions, the only guidance offered to her was the jail's chaplain. No one there spoke Mi'kmaw and she was provided with few traditional medicines. She felt alone.
"There was nobody speaking Mi'kmaw at the jail, they have no ceremony, if you're on a journey, it's totally stopped because you don't have the resources," she said.
Toney was in and out of Central Nova from 2014 to 2018. She said that shortly after getting released in 2018, she overdosed.
"I don't know why, but it was a great need. Maybe the pain, the aloneness, things like that," said Toney.
Toney is presently living in Dartmouth. She goes to the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre for circles once a month with her team, where they check in with each other. She said she is "doing really well."
Alternative to incarceration
Some of her support comes from the non-profit organization From The Ground Up, Women's Wellness Society.
The organization is seeking to offer an alternative to incarceration by creating housing units where women can serve sentences or can live after release from Nova Scotia provincial jails. The organization was registered February 2020 and is still in the early stages of development.
Bianca Mercer, herself a former inmate of Central Nova, is one of the founders of the group. She said putting Indigenous women, some of whom are human trafficking victims, in jail due charges like robbery and drug possession that stem from economic inequalities "goes to show that [Indigenous women] aren't the problem, it's society that's the problem."
Tanya Bignell, another founder of From the Ground Up, worked as a corrections officer at Central Nova for 10 years. She said most women are in custody for petty crimes or for offences "they're being forced by a spouse or partner to commit in order to feed an addiction."
Eventually, she began to question the criminal justice system.
"I started realizing that we might be trying to do good for the integrity of the jail and keeping everybody safe, but at the same time, how much harm are we doing to these women?"
In an email, Nova Scotia's Department of Justice said it acknowledges the overrepresentation of Indigenous persons, including women, in the justice system and is making efforts to address the issue.
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