Published On: Wed, Jun 12th, 2019

A healing lodge for Indigenous women would be an important step

Of all the shames described in last week’s report from the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, none is worse than the plight of Indigenous women in Canada’s prison system.

The headline numbers are bad enough: Indigenous women make up just 4 per cent of the female population, yet more than 40 per cent of the country’s female prison population are Indigenous.

And while crime rates have been falling nationally, along with the overall number of inmates, the situation has been getting steadily worse for Indigenous women. They are actually the fastest-growing group in the prison population, as has been documented over many years by Canada’s prison watchdog, the Correctional Investigator.

Leave aside for the moment theoretical debates over whether any of this adds up to “genocide.” Regardless of what label you put on it, the reasons why Indigenous women get caught up in the correctional system, its effects on them, and what happens once they get out can no longer be swept under the national rug.

All of which makes a controversy in Scarborough over construction of a planned healing lodge for Indigenous women coming out of prison a lot more important than it might seem at a glance.

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Some people who live near the project, proposed for an empty lot at the corner of Kingston Rd. and Cliffside Dr., are in an uproar. The Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten reports they’re upset about its location, near Cliffside Public School, and object to having another social project located in an area that already has social housing and homeless shelters.

This kind of neighbourhood pushback can be expected for almost any project. But it would be tragic if, at this time especially, it was allowed to stall or even derail something that is so badly needed.

The healing lodge, to be built by the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society with funding from the federal and provincial governments, will be the first of its kind in Ontario.

It’s not a correctional institution — like the controversial healing lodge in Saskatchewan run by the prison system for women still serving their sentences. As planned, it will be a six-storey, 24-bed building with commercial space on the ground floor and rooms and apartments above for women on probation or parole, as well as some who are on bail but haven’t been convicted of a crime.

They are, in other words, preparing to go back into society and need support and services appropriate to their needs as Indigenous women. Patti Pettigrew, president of the society’s board, stresses that “this is not a jail and these women are not inmates.” It would also be in an area that has the largest Indigenous community in the city, meaning other services are already nearby.

City councillor Gary Crawford’s Facebook page lit up with comments on the project last week. Some of them were angry, with concerns about the safety of kids going to the local school and “crack houses” in the area. But others sounded a welcome note of openness; one neighbour said she hopes the healing lodge “will be a beautiful, child-friendly place for the women to recover with their children, friends and families.”

It will take patience and leadership to navigate through community concerns and make this project a reality. It starts on Wednesday evening with a public meeting in the neighbourhood.

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But everyone involved should be aware of what’s at stake. Blocking something as potentially valuable as a healing space for women who have already been through so much would send a terrible message.

The inquiry’s report makes clear we need many more projects like that to address the harms of the past, and the present. This sounds like a fine place to start.

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TORONTO STAR

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A healing lodge for Indigenous women would be an important step