Indigenous Town Hall identifies challenges ahead of Fall meeting with CSC Commissioner

On May 18th, USJE hosted an Indigenous Town Hall to hear the experiences of Indigenous-identified members working for the Correctional Service of Canada. 

The two-hour-long discussion was chaired by National President, David Neufeld, and Equity Committee co-chair, Regional Vice-President Shauna Ward. National Vice-President and Equity Committee co-chair Lynette Robinson also welcomed the participants. RVP Ward identified three main questions for participants.  

1. As an Indigenous person, what are you proud of when it comes to your job? 

2. What are the barriers or challenges that you encounter as an Indigenous employee working within the Correctional Service of Canada?

3. What changes are necessary to address the barriers and challenges faced in the workplace by Indigenous employees? (i.e. in recruitment, retention and development.)

Key issues were raised by the participants throughout the discussion. Foremost were questions of identity, insufficient investments in the professional development of Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees, the availability of Indigenous-led programs and training as well as staff recruitment and retention.

The hiring of non-Indigenous staff for Indigenous designated positions continues to be a problem. If individuals don’t have a clear Indigenous heritage and an active and strong relationship to their culture, they cannot do justice to the work, or those Indigenous offenders they are mandated to serve. 

The role of Elders was also an important part of the discussion. The mistreatment and misunderstanding of the heavy lifting that Elders do means that they choose to sever their ties with CSC because of a lack of respect. This presents a real challenge given the fundamental role that Elders play in Indigenous cultures at large and in healing journeys, ceremonies, and other Indigenous programs. When an Indigenous offender has a good connection with an Elder who leaves, offenders lose the support they need from people they have learned to trust.

Participants on the call recognized that some Elders prefer to be called Knowledge Keepers; the wisdom Elders bring can be much more helpful at times than those employed with formal education (PhDs and experts from western/settler institutions). However, Elders aren’t compensated for this knowledge in the same way.  

Participants also identified the need for greater investments in education regarding cultural practices, and the need  to forge external partnerships to supplement cultural knowledge. It was noted that current Cultural Competency training, although well-intentioned, is not sufficient. Monthly meetings where Elders, Indigenous Liaison Officers, Indigenous Correctional Program Officers and others are present would be an opportunity to provide key updates on protocols, practices and further updates. 

Efforts towards reconciliation and decolonizing were also a big part of the discussion. Many participants pointed out that the voices of Indigenous peoples must be given back to Indigenous members. There remains a lot of racism that goes undenounced within the federal government generally. The establishment of regional reconciliation circles where there may be opportunities to get more involved is promising however. 

Indigenous legal methods such as justice/sentencing circles, which can serve as alternative models to conventional correctional approaches, should also be increasingly considered and utilized. This includes a model where the judge, prosecutor, defendant, other justice employees, police and certain members of their families gather alongside the victim, who has the chance to speak about their negative experience. This affords the accused the opportunity to make amends. At the end of the process, everyone makes a recommendation (except judge and prosecutor) in advance of a court date where the judge passes down the sentence.  

Finally, the recruitment of more Indigenous peoples is also a paramount concern. There are acute shortages of Elders and Elders’ Helpers among other staff, even though the Indigenous population within Corrections keeps growing.  

The issues identified at this Indigenous Town Hall will help to inform USJE’s forthcoming roundtable discussion with the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, the Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections and the Minister of Public Safety during the last week of September 2023, in the lead up to the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30th.