Voices of incarcerated Indigenous women silenced, advocates tell MMIWG inquiry

The federal government's refusal to extend the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls means the inquiry had to rule out visits to prisons to hear the experiences of Indigenous female inmates, the inquiry's commissioners say.

Government's refusal to extend inquiry ruled out visit to prisons, commissioners say

Kassandra Churcher, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, told MMIWG commissioners Wednesday that strip-searching female inmates is 'institutionalized violence against women.' (CBC)

Incarcerated Indigenous women have "been put at the bottom of the list, as they often are," an advocacy group told the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) Wednesday.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies was in Quebec City to present its recommendations, addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons.

Executive director Kassandra Churcher began her testimony by expressing concern commissioners would not be hearing from incarcerated women themselves.

"Today — as we testify — there are women who are in segregation, whose stories cannot be told," she said.​

The Manitoba MMIWG Coalition, present for the hearing, called their absence "a missed opportunity for Indigenous women across Canada."

Churcher acknowledged the inquiry had to deal with "immense time constraints." 

In March 2018, the inquiry's chief commissioner, Marion Buller, requested a two-year extension and $50 million in additional funding, to "engage with 2SLGBTQ people" and to reach vulnerable Indigenous women and girls, "including those who are incarcerated, homeless and trafficked."

Commissioner Qajaq Robinson had tears in her eyes as she spoke about the inquiry's failure to visit incarcerated Indigenous women, for lack of time. 'It will be a disappointment I will carry for my life,' she said. (Julia Page/CBC)

Ottawa allowed an additional six months to complete the inquiry.

Buller called the decision against visiting a penitentiary "a large disappointment" and "very painful" for the team.

Commissioner Qajaq Robinson teared up as she addressed the panel at the end of the day.

"It will be a disappointment I will carry for my life," Robinson said, asking the association to tell the women "how much we wanted to meet them."

"We will not forget them in our report," she promised.

Ban on segregation, strip searches

The Elizabeth Fry Societies association submitted several recommendations to the commissioners, many of which have been underscored in numerous reports over several decades, Churcher said.

While Indigenous women make up only four per cent of the general population, 39 per cent of incarcerated women are Indigenous.

Churcher said that overrepresentation has been well documented over the years, yet "nothing has been done to address this."

Churcher said the reasons for this are numerous but can be traced back to the "long-term effects of colonization and intergenerational trauma."

Elizabeth Fry called for the removal of strip searches by correctional officers, describing it as "institutionalized violence against women," Churcher said.

The majority of Indigenous women who are incarcerated were victims of sexual abuse in their past, she said.

"The federal government's action re-traumatize women on a regular basis," Churcher submitted to the inquiry.

She said some women who refuse to go through with the searches, and can lose privileges, like the right to see their children.

Others will avoid applying for jobs or volunteer work within the prison to "not endure the trauma of strip searches," therefore losing out on opportunities.

Policing, safety discussed 

This leg of the inquiry is hearing from expert witnesses and covers themes that have surfaced during testimony from more than 1,200 families across the country.

On Monday, commissioners heard how the opioid crisis is overwhelming police services in northern Ontario. 

The chief of Canada's largest Indigenous police force, the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), said that chronic underfunding has endangered the 34 communities NAPS serves, particularly vulnerable women and girls.

On Tuesday, human rights advocates detailed how major resource development projects jeopardize the safety of girls and women.

The fly-in, fly-out model brings to remote regions large numbers of transient workers with deep pockets, the commissioners heard. They drop into town to "blow off steam" and drive up the cost of living for locals. 

The income gap between women and men in these communities also exacerbates inequalities, because women cannot afford to leave violent relationships, witnesses told the inquiry.

Commissioners will move on to Winnipeg, Man., and St-John's, N.L., in October.