'They're being banished:' Inuit women need their communities, not jail, says advocate

·5 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — It was just six weeks in jail for Jody Blake, an Inuk woman living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., but those weeks were long and lonely, and there was no chance of her kids or family coming to see her.

Blake was 43 when she served time in 2019 at the province's lone detention centre for women, in Clarenville, N.L., about 1,400 kilometres from her home. She is among the many Indigenous women — who compose a disproportionate number of inmates in the province's justice system compared to their population in the province — who have been flown far away from their communities to serve their sentences.

"I don't know anybody in Newfoundland and my kids can't come and see me … they don't have money," Blake said in a recent interview. "There (were) other people there from Labrador when I was in there, too, and they were having hard times, too. Other people (were) getting visitors and people from Labrador never had anyone."

Gerri Sharpe, vice president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, the national representative organization for Inuit women in the country, says sending Indigenous female inmates hundreds of kilometres from home to be detained is tantamount to exiling them.

"They're being banished," Sharpe said in a recent interview.

"If you look at the traditional way that the Inuit would have justice, prior to colonial contact, the most severe sentence that could be passed down on somebody is banishment from the community."

Back home, Blake's kids struggled in her absence. Her daughter started a new school where she didn't know anybody, and her son was acting out and getting into trouble, she said. The most she could do was wait each day for one of the jail's phones to free up and hope one of her kids was home to take her call.

Newfoundland and Labrador has one women's prison, the Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women. The squat brick building is about 200 kilometres northwest of St. John's. In the past five years, women have been transported from Labrador to the Clarenville facility 98 times, according to data obtained by The Canadian Press through an access to information request. The same offender may have been transported multiple times.

There were plans to expand the Labrador Correctional Centre for men in Happy Valley-Goose Bay so the jail could house women, but those plans have been delayed for up to two years, the Department of Justice said in a recent email.

Indigenous women are overrepresented in the Clarenville jail. In the past decade, 22 per cent of all admissions involved women who self-identified as Indigenous, according to the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Indigenous women make up roughly 8.9 per cent of the province's population.

Women who identified as Inuit accounted for nine per cent of those admissions,while Inuit people make up just 1.3 per cent of the province's population. Women who identified as "Indian" composed 10 per cent of admissions during that period, and those with "Aboriginal status unknown" accounted for nearly two per cent of inmates.

Sharpe said before colonial contact, rehabilitation took place in the community with help from elders and the offender's family. Rehabilitation is less likely in a system that sends Inuit women thousands of kilometres away. Inuit women need their community support, their elders and access to their culture and language in order to heal, Sharpe said.

Labrador is not the only province where Inuit women are taken far from home to be incarcerated in government institutions, she added.

Inuit Nunangat, Canada's Inuit region, spans the highest tip of the Yukon Territory to the north coast of Labrador, and it comprises some of the country's most remote, far-flung communities. In most cases, convicted Inuit women must travel thousands of kilometres if their sentences require time in a provincial institution.

If their sentences are more than two years, they travel even further to one of the country's six federal detention facilities for women. Women from Labrador, for example, would be flown to Nova Scotia. The closest federal prison to Nunavut is in Edmonton, nearly 3,000 kilometres away.

Statistics Canada figures indicate women are less frequently accused of and convicted for violent crime, and the violence they commit is more likely to be low-level assault. Sharpe noted that many Inuit women who commit crimes are doing so out of vulnerability — to escape abuse, for example.

"A lot of the crimes that they commit, it's because they cannot do anything other than that; they are stuck," she said.

Removing them from their communities only exacerbates that vulnerability, Sharpe said, adding, "This is one of the leading factors that lead to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls," she said. "It all ties in together into the big picture. This is how we end up making our women more vulnerable — by removing them from those support systems."

When asked what these women need from political leaders right now, Sharpe didn't hesitate: "Reconciliation."

Without government action, she said, the overrepresentation of Inuit women in the country's correctional facilities will become another contributor of intergenerational trauma.

The Canadian Press spoke with several Inuit women who have been sent to Clarenville for incarceration. One, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for her daughter, said she was often scared to speak her own language with the other Labradorian women in the facility because other inmates would accuse them of talking about them behind her back.

"It's really hard," she said, adding that it's lonely to watch women from Newfoundland get visitors. "It's just really different for Newfoundland and for Labrador. We're so far away, but Newfoundland is their home."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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