Why Indigenous Women Are Canada’s Fastest Growing Prison Population

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Donna Lerat was used to a routine: live behind bars, come out and try to clean up, end up back on the street selling her body. She saw it in herself and her fellow inmates.

Lerat was born into poverty and chaos. Before the Indigenous woman, of Cree and French background, went to her first day of school, she'd been physically and sexually abused. Before her tenth birthday she'd been in out and of foster care. By the time she was 15 years old, she was closer with Canada's justice system than its education system, and she was failed by it time and time again. She had been groomed for a life behind bars, and she followed what seemed like the only path laid out in front of her.

In 1991, she was living in a small community in Alberta during a short stint of freedom, when she found out that her daughter, who was three, was being sexually abused. She contacted police and social services.

"I sat there thinking of the guy, how I was going to skin the son of a bitch. But I said, 'No Donna, clear mind. Let the process go,' because I want to trust the process," she said. "I thought [it happened to me] because my mom didn't use the process, and then I realized the process wasn't even there at all."

Lerat alleges that two weeks later she was informed that the police wouldn't be charging the man—she figures her occupation as a sex worker had something to do with it. Lerat grabbed a sawed-off shotgun and put it in a duffle bag with some laundry. She walked down the road of the little community, hell bent on fulfilling her plan to murder the man who she alleges abused her daughter.

A few blocks from her home, she was stopped by police and they asked what she was doing. Lerat said she told them she was going to do laundry, but the officers knew better. She said the officers told her that she shouldn't "do laundry" that day because there were no child welfare workers on duty, so her daughter would suffer more.

With the shotgun still in her bag, Lerat turned around and walked home.

Donna Lerat. Photo courtesy the author

Donna Lerat. Photo courtesy the author

Lerat is now 50 years old, and her story, while horrific, is not particularly unique.Between 2001 and 2012 the Aboriginal women inmate population increased by 109 percent. It continues to be the fastest growing inmate population in the country.

According to the Correctional Investigator of Canada, more than 36 percent of women in federal prison are of Aboriginal descent, and 2011 statistics show in provincial custody that number jumped to 41 percent. Aboriginal people make up just over four percent of the overall Canadian population.

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With cases like Tina Fontaine, Karina Wolfe, and Rinelle Harper spurring on the upcoming inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, the vulnerability and excessive violence that Aboriginal girls and women face may finally be addressed. So, when Canadians think about who they are scared of, who needs be behind bars, is it really those same Indigenous women?

The new Justice minister—and first Indigenous woman to hold the position—Jody Wilson-Raybould will be part of the upcoming inquiry, but has also been directed to look specifically at what is going on in the justice system to lead to a disproportionate amount of Indigenous people incarcerated.

"The high (and growing) rate of Indigenous Peoples in custody is not only a matter for concern, but an indicator of the health of our society as a whole. We can and must do better to address this growing problem," the Department of Justice told VICE in an emailed statement.

"The Minister's mandate letter directs her to review the changes in our criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade with a view to, among other things, reducing the rate of incarceration amongst Indigenous Canadians. The Minister will work with the Minister of Public Safety and his portfolio, and others, to examine the various reasons people become involved in the system. The Minister is aware that incarceration can be a reflection of a variety of issues, including root causes such as poverty, marginalization and inequality, as well as mental health and other issues. We must work together across government and across sectors, including law enforcement and the justice system, in order to reverse this human tragedy."

Families torn apart by the justice system would like to see more than platitudes and non-specific promises when it comes to the overincarceration of their Indigenous women—they're asking for action.

When the justice system doesn't care: 'I was just some little Indian chick who ran away all the time'

Lerat grew up between Prince Albert and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as the oldest of five kids. She is funny, with a big laugh. But she doesn't shy away from the truth of her life.

"We sort of went back and forth and I was in foster homes all the time," she said.

"My mom struggled. My dad left when we were about six. He was abusive anyways so I'm kind of glad but my mom really struggled and she had no support system whatsoever."

Lerat's mother was an alcoholic. When she was on the bottle she would disappear and leave the kids alone in their home.

"I made a vow when I was six and my mom came home and the house was a mess, of course. We'd been alone for a couple of weeks and she said 'this house is a fucking mess.' We were scrambling around scared and she started giving me a lickin' and probably because I was giving her lip because even I knew it was ridiculous," Lerat said.

"I got a beating. I remember thinking I was never, ever going to let anyone see me cry and I never did. I never did."

Photo by Terry Malone

Photo by Terry Malone

It was during this time that social services would come to the house and take the kids away. Lerat caught a glimpse of her file later on and saw that she was described as an "uncontrollable runaway." They'd put her in foster care or with different family members, but she said that nobody asked her why she was running away. If they would have asked, they would have heard about the chaos and the abuse. The first time she remembers sexual abuse, she was only five years old.

"I was at home and the babysitter got on top of me," she said. "He told me if I didn't let him, he'd bother my sister."

She grew up being taught that you take care of your siblings no matter the cost, even the abuse. Lerat said she just "got used to it and shut down."

It was in this life that she first connected with the justice system. She ended up at Kilburn Hall, a youth detention centre in Saskatoon. Then she went to a detention centre for girls in the province's south which she says "looked like a residential school but was an old nursing station." She gave birth to her first child at 15 years old while living in a group home.

"I'd just been hemorrhaging and the social worker comes in, closes the curtain, and says, "You are signing those papers or I'll take that baby away like I took your brothers and sisters away. I'll separate you and make sure that you'll never have a life, you'll never see this child,'" Lerat said of putting the child into the care of the province.

"What could I do? Nobody believed me. I was just some little Indian chick who ran away all the time."

The corrections system actually predates this country's confederation in 1867 and the opening of Kingston Penitentiary in 1835 marked the beginning of a principled, institutional approach to Canadian corrections.

Over the years other federal penitentiaries opened up across the country and in 1934, Canada's first women-only prison opened.

Canada continued building prisons, especially as the crime rate rose significantly after WWII. Along with this came the National Parole Board (in 1959) and numerous studies into reintegrating after incarceration.

With all these reports and task forces, what started becoming clear was that there was a hugely disproportionate amount of Indigenous people being put behind bars.

So Canada opened two healing lodges: Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, for Aboriginal women and Pê Sâkâstêw in Hobbema, Alberta, for Aboriginal men. Slowly, six more of the minimum-security lodges opened because Correction Services Canada saw that combining Aboriginal concepts of justice and spirituality helped reduce recidivism rates.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1999 also implemented the option of a Gladue report, where there are special cultural considerations that the court must take into account in assessing an Aboriginal person's case. There's been criticism within and outside the justice system of its underuse.

Healing lodges weren't going to change things when it came to a long, dark, and complicated relationship between the country's justice system and Indigenous people.

In a speech at the Aboriginal Justice Learning Network in 1997, Justice Murray Sinclair—now chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—said that when it comes to dealing with Aboriginal people and justice issues he is not sure "that one lifetime is enough to do all that needs to be done."

"When the justice system can be fallible where Aboriginal people are concerned, it is fallible. It fails at virtually every point in the system in the process," Sinclair said.


The speech explained that since the beginning of the institutionalized justice system in Canada, it was set up in a way that Aboriginal people were going to fail. From specific laws, which kept Indigenous people in poverty (one act prohibited the sale of agricultural products grown on reservations which remained until 1951), to the criminalization of the potlatch and winter dance ceremonies, to Indian Agents taking children to residential schools, along with the Pass System (where the Canadian government wouldn't let Indigenous people leave their reserve without a pass), the country's judicial system made laws which would inevitably be broken by Indigenous people. Ironically, it was also illegal for Indigenous people to protest these things.

"When you look at... the way Aboriginal people are today, and look at it in historical terms, you come to realize that we have not always been this way," Sinclair said in his speech.

"Aboriginal people did not always kill themselves at a high rate. Aboriginal men did not always abuse their women and their children. Aboriginal people did not always represent 70 percent of the jail populations of our provinces. Aboriginal people lived a relatively stable life at long points of our history very recently."

In the TRC's final report, there are clear examples of how laws broke up families and led to communities being trapped in poverty. Lerat's family was one of those.

"If we look back at the history of the people in [prisons], and not just their parents, my generation, it's residential school. Everyone is talking like it's just history. It's not freaking history: 1980s, 1990s, my own friends were in residential school," Lerat said. "My friend told me [in residential school] she laid there at night praying every night [they] didn't come to her bed because she saw as they went to other girls' beds. Those same ones that they went to the beds, those girls ended up on [street] corners. And it wasn't just residential schools, it was foster care, the Sixties Scoop. The system sucks."

Eventually, Lerat ended up on the corner, too.

Life on the inside: 'I actually gave birth to my youngest son in handcuffs and shackles'

Not long after working on the streets, Lerat ended up in Pinegrove, a women's correctional centre in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

"[At first] I was terrified. But then they spray that stuff on you, and then you take a bath and wash it off. Then I went into the unit they put me in," Lerat said. "Here are my cousins, my older cousins. They were the ones I looked up to, the ones who took care of themselves, didn't wait and fought against the system and everything else in our family. So I followed along."

Most of Lerat's charges were related to prostitution and unpaid fines from those charges. Then the charges became Failure to Appear, because, as Lerat says, she "was trained to stay up all night and watch the house and sleep during the day" so she never made it to court in the morning.

According to the Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers, the high rate of incarceration for Indigenous people is linked to systemic discrimination, economic and social disadvantage, substance abuse, and violence and trauma. With a decade of financial cuts to women's shelters and programs and the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, the population of Aboriginal women in federal penitentiaries continues to grow.

"It's really troubling as well because it seems to me, particular groups seem most affected," Sapers told VICE.

Thirty percent of women in custody have previous psychiatric hospitalization; 70 percent of the women in custody have a history of sexual abuse; and 86 percent have a history of physical abuse.

"It's incredibly sad. It's tragic in terms of human potential, to see that there is a population in Canada that seems to be in such conflict to the extent that we are seeing this type of incarceration rate," Sapers said. "It seems to start young, 53 percent of young offenders under the age of 18 are of Aboriginal heritage."

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Who are the Indigenous people going behind bars? One CSC study showed that half have been in the child welfare system, 73 percent have a family history with residential schools, over 90 percent say that substance use was related to the offence, and 88 percent had a family member struggling with addictions.

These numbers mean there is overcrowding at regional women's facilities, a lack of programming for federally sentenced women, and a rise in self-injury among the inmates, essentially doubling in the past few years. Aboriginal women are much more likely to be put in segregation and deemed high risk. Between 2005 and 2015 the amount of Aboriginal offenders in segregation rose 52.4 percent. They've also had consistently the longest average length of stay in segregation.

Three in four of the incarcerated women are mothers to children under the age of 18, and at the time of arrest almost all of them were the single caregivers .

"I actually gave birth to my youngest son in handcuffs and shackles," Tammy Marquardt said. She was pregnant with her youngest son when she first went behind bars.

Marquardt, of Anishinaabe descent, was born in Toronto. As a teenager, she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend and ended up leaving home when she was 17 years old. Two years later, she had her son Kenneth, who suffered from a number of serious health issues including epilepsy. She ended up in an abusive relationship and living in poverty, something many women behind bars know too well.

On Oct. 9, 1993, Marquardt went to check on Kenneth, who was two-and-a-half years old, and found him gasping for air. Having an anxiety attack, she called 911 and couldn't calm down enough to perform CPR. Kenneth was taken to hospital but he had suffered brain damage and three days later he was taken off life support and died.

Kenneth's autopsy went to Dr. Charles Smith, who was the Director of the Ontario Pediatric Forensic Pathology Unit at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. Smith said the death was not accidental and two months later, Marquardt was charged and arrested for the second degree murder of her son.

Although Marquardt maintained her innocence, in 1995 she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 10 years.

In the years following, Dr. Smith's expertise and methods began to be questioned, and by 2005, a decade after Marquardt had gone to prison, there was a review into every case where Smith performed an autopsy. In 2008, Smith's findings were called illogical and against scientific evidence-based reasoning and the doctor was disgraced. Finally in 2012 Marquardt was ordered a new trial. After almost 14 years in prison, she was released and exonerated.

Tammy Marquardt. Photo by Geraldine Malone

Tammy Marquardt. Photo by Geraldine Malone

"I don't blame Smith solely because it wasn't just him. It was his supervisors, his superiors, the whole system—[the] medical system as well as the justice system," Marquardt told VICE after speaking at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law recently. "[It was the] police because at that time they had this 'think dirty' thing happening. Anything that happens to a child is always think dirty."

Marquardt said during her time in prison she didn't have easy access to health care. But worse, her children on the outside were put in permanent care, and even once free she wasn't allowed access to them. As she tries now to navigate family court, the past conviction, although overturned, continues to come up in her file.

"I am still being judged on my past, on what happened to me, not that I had even done anything," she said. "Even today, even though I've been exonerated I am fighting in family court, and on the first page it says 'was convicted and served X number of years for killing her son.' You know where my exoneration is written? The second last page."

It's these systemic issues impacting Indigenous women which are deeply ingrained within the issue, Executive Director of the Canadian Association Elizabeth Fry Societies Kim Pate said.

"If we jailed the people who cause the greatest harm to us, our jails would not be full of poor, Aboriginal women with mental health issues who have first been victimized," she said. "That is not who you think of when you think of risks to public safety or risks to you personally, and yet we are increasingly jailing those who are most marginalized, those who are most victimized, and not looking at how do we address very real harm that needs to be addressed."

Pate said she hopes the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women highlights the issues that are making women more susceptible to violence—resulting in the high rates of murder as well as the high rates of incarceration.

"The women are doing things that are really culminated by the poverty and trying to negotiate or navigate that poverty and survive it," she said.

One in four First Nations families live in poverty and the average annual income of an Indigenous woman is nearly 20 percent below the low-income cut-off.

So the women aren't in prison because being poor itself is illegal, but they are in for things like fraud, theft, prostitution, or drug offences. Pate said since many have grown up in poverty or in the child welfare system, they believe they are less worthy of protection, access to services, or safety.

"Women are the most profoundly hyper-responsibilized, they are held responsible for their own victimization... They were told it's your responsibility to keep yourself and your family, your children safe. Then they were hyper-criminalized when they did that," Pate said, adding we know the history of violence indigenous women face.

"There is no accommodation of the incredible victimization and marginalization that they experience. Instead they are just somehow supposed to rise above that... as opposed to us recognizing that they are in an increasingly impossible situation of just having to survive."

Jails, institution, or death: the cycle

Life was never easy for Lerat, but her record was about to get a lot worse. Like many women behind bars, she didn't see a way out.

"It's kind of like a self punishment, too, a blaming. [We think] that we are not worthy because of where we come from, because the majority come from drugs, alcohol, they are around chaos all the time and always working against it," said Lerat.

"They say jails, institution, or death."

Not long after the shotgun incident, Lerat sold her belongings and drove back to Saskatchewan. She'd already had her two oldest children taken from her, and on the drive back she decided to give her remaining two children up for adoption as well.

"I had been jinxed all my fucking life, not worthy," she said. "Then I went hard, I stuck a knife in a guy's neck because I had just had it."

Lerat speaks calmly, but with regret about the moment. She says the man came up behind her, hit in her in her head, and without thinking she just turned and stabbed. She says that she didn't even feel like she was in her body, and years later realized the anger wasn't just at this man, it was at everything else in her life. After it happened, her younger brother walked in but she told him to get away because she didn't bring anything but trouble. Not long after that he committed suicide.

"I still carry that regret, grief, blame, not only for him but for my daughters. I thought I had saved them but I didn't do fuck all. They still struggle. They struggle knowing their mother was a whore and gave them up," Lerat said. "It's still blame and there is no way I can fix any of that for them."

It would take years, but eventually in 2001 Lerat got clean and got off the streets. There's a list of people she thanks from her family to elders and an ex-Hells Angels member, but a lot of it has to do with her own strength. She saw that the battle she was fighting, to stay alive on the streets, was the wrong one.

"When is enough, enough? Whole communities are going through that shit. When we talk about the women, they are getting tired. I keep telling the women in there that they are fighting the wrong beast," Lerat said. "You have been oppressed way too long, you've been told lies. It's a combination of it all."

Lerat now works as a sexual health and incarcerated women's advocate. Even though more than a decade ago she vowed never to end up behind bars again, she spends many of her days working in Pinegrove Correctional Centre with the women incarcerated. She sees that the cycle of poverty, abuse, violence, and incarceration is passing onto the next generations.

"Some of those girls behind bars, I know their moms, their aunties. I ask, 'What's your name again? What are you doing here?'" Lerat said. "I don't get this world."

The minute a mother goes to prison, the chances of their child ending up going down the same path increases. Only five percent of children whose mothers are in prison end up in their original household while she is behind bars. Studiesalso show that children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to experience extreme poverty and violence.

A CSC study showed that 61 percent of the incarcerated people involved had family in prison and had been in the care of the child welfare system.

The children become another victim to the crime and a system which historically shows it will fail them.

It's not a hopeless scenario if the justice system starts thinking in terms of reconciliation rather than retribution, according to Pate.

"We need to fundamentally look at inequality issues. We could be reinvesting the billions of dollars into better services, more appropriate services, services that will assist many, many people, not just those that are criminalized and not just those who are imprisoned," she said.

If people aren't seeing that now, she hopes it will become very clear during the inquiry.

"If you are not seeing these links of these issues than you are not paying attention," she said.

"There is just no way that you could see what is happening to Indigenous peoples in this country and not see the links between the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the overincarceration of aboriginal women, and the lack of access to appropriate supports."

As for Lerat, she will continue her work with young women behind bars because she says now she's fulfilling her sentence from the Creator. But it's hard and it's a lot of pressure for one person to take. With a record like hers, she can't mess up, not even once

"All it would take is me relapsing once and I'm screwed. Even though addictions is a relapse-able disease," she said. "It's like holding diarrhea back. It wouldn't matter. I can't fuck up. I can never fuck up."

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