Calgary Herald
A female offender

Toronto Program Helps Female Indigenous Ex-Inmates Heal and Regain Their Pride

Martha Troian

When Mary Ann Villeneuve left prison in 2011 she had nowhere to turn.

She had entered in 2010, imprisoned for a violent crime, and served with 12 indigenous women, including those in the maximum security unit. Living in Toronto during parole, she ached for a sweat lodge ceremony. But Villeneuve, originally from Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario, could not find any culturally tailored assistance to help her transition to the outside.

“I had to fight with CSC [Correctional Service Canada] hand over fist to get what I wanted,” said Villeneuve.

“Basically they're dropped off in Toronto and there's no real transition,” said Patti Pettigrew, a caseworker at Aboriginal Legal Services, a legal agency serving Toronto's indigenous community. “It's not addressing their needs, so they find themselves re-offending.”

Enter the Toronto Aboriginal Social Services Council, whose staff has a vision. Made up of 10 organizations, the council is building an urban healing lodge in the city of Toronto for federally sentenced indigenous women. In a system that often seems set up for failure, the new program is offering an alternative to the harsh reality that many women face when they are released. The Thunder Woman Healing Lodge incorporates indigenous values and traditions with a focus on education to prepare female former prisoners for life on the outside.

Pettigrew has seen a high number of indigenous women coming out of prisons and arriving in Toronto. Most often they are emerging from the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison based in Kitchener, Ontario. More needs to be available for these women given the statistics and outcomes, said Pettigrew. Indigenous women are deemed the fastest-growing prison population, accounting for 32 per cent of all incarcerated females, an 86 percent increase over the past decade.

Villeneuve herself saw a spike in the number of indigenous women incarcerated during her short stay of just over a year in Grand Valley, she told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“When I walked in those doors at Grand Valley in the minimum-medium security area, that number grew to sixty,” she said.

“The real desire for it has to do with the work that we do every day, and the people we see every day, and the families and community that are affected every day,” said Christa Big Canoe, legal advisory director at Aboriginal Legal Services, a member of the Social Services Council. “A number of them live in cities, and that's where they found themselves having issues with the law to start with.”

“This is something sacred,” said Villeneuve of her struggle to find culturally relevant services. “We look at this differently than how they look at their laws. That's where that divider is.”


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