On Wednesday, September 20th, the Union of Safety and Justice Employees convened a small Roundtable with USJE members who are Indigenous-identified employees and working within the federal Correctional system. The idea for this particular Roundtable was born out of an earlier conversation between National President David Neufeld and some Indigenous members working within CSC from the Kingston area earlier this spring. Further, the Roundtable built upon a similar but larger gathering of Indigenous employees working within the federal Correctional system that USJE convened in 2018. After 2018, CSC created an Indigenous-focused Action Plan much of which reflected the insights and perspectives shared at the Roundtable.
RVP Shauna Ward, who is herself Indigenous, and who has extensive experience as a federal Correctional employee and now serves as Regional Vice President from Saskatchewan (CSC), co-chaired the Roundtable alongside National President David Neufeld. David and Shauna thanked recently appointed Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Affairs Kathy Neil for joining the Roundtable in its entirety, and expressed their desire to have a close and collaborative working relationship. Ms. Neil noted she was very eager to learn more from frontline staff and hoped to have more dialogue like these in the future.
Pam Damoff Member of Parliament (Oakville) and former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety took the time to attend the first half of the Roundtable. Anne Kelly, Commissioner for the Correctional Service of Canada, was able to join the dialogue midway.
Tina Vincent, an Anishnaabe Knowledge Keeper welcomed guests and explained the rules of the Circle.
Shauna initiated introductions around the Circle.
The Roundtable was primarily focused on the current conditions within the federal Correctional system which inhibit or compromise the ability of Indigenous employees to be effective in their work with Indigenous offenders, and limit their own professional development and management opportunities.
HIRING AND RETENTION OF INDIGENOUS EMPLOYEES
One of the major issues identified among participants is that there are not enough Indigenous employees who can serve the diversity of Indigenous offenders with varied Cultural backgrounds. Further, it is sometimes the case that individuals with very limited knowledge of Indigenous Cultural practices and/or relationships with Indigenous communities are being hired by CSC to play key roles within Indigenous programs and with offenders. This is not appropriate or acceptable.
A member noted that it is “hard to promote Indigenous views when you’re not Indigenous yourself”. The recruitment, retention, and development of Indigenous staff is a key challenge. CSC used to go directly into communities to recruit. This isn’t happening to the same extent, and non-Indigenous people are still making decisions about who is Indigenous and who isn’t. Lived experiences should also be part of the hiring process.
Another member spoke of the heavy reliance by CSC on Elders, particularly in the Pathways programs, but how difficult it is to recruit and retain Elders with the appropriate Cultural backgrounds to serve offenders, including those who are Inuit.
There is also the reality that some Correctional employees, including Correctional Officers, don’t always understand the nuanced role Elders play in the rehabilitation of federal offenders, which can lead to disrespect of the Elders themselves. When this happens, Elders are not always inclined to continue their working relationship with the Correctional Services, which represents a great loss to those Indigenous offenders who are seeking to heal, reconnect with their Culture, and prepare to reintegrate into the community.
USJE also heard that for those Indigenous offenders who are in the “general population” within federal penitentiaries, often there is no population Elder available which is quite unfortunate. This means there is no real opportunity for Indigenous offenders to have any meaningful connection with their culture and pathways for healing. At one institution, there has been no Elder for many years, which is very challenging for those offenders who carry a lot of trauma, and are participating in programs that ask a lot of them. To have no Elder to provide spiritual support after intense sessions is not appropriate, and does a profound injustice to offenders who are genuinely seeking to heal. This should not be happening.
Moreover, many Indigenous staff also suffer from some of the same traumatic experiences as Offenders, in terms of family violence, displacement from land and Culture, the harm of residential schools, loss of loved ones, among other things. However, many managers don’t bring empathy to these employees and have little to no interest in accommodating these employees. This colonialist approach is doing a major disservice to Indigenous employees working within federal Corrections who are committed to the rehabilitation of offenders, but need some tangible support themselves.
Among participants, there was also the repeated call to ensure that Elder recruitment actively involves Indigenous staff, and that there must be a better Definition of what is considered an Elder or cultural worker. There are also real challenges with cultural accommodations – including not being able to Smudge within Institutions which is a crucial Culture practice for which more flexibility is required.
Workloads were also a key theme. Given the significance of the rehabilitation that federal Correctional employees are undertaking, carrying sustained heavy workloads with Indigenous offenders who have complex Indigenous social histories, intergenerational trauma and poor coping skills compromises the effectiveness of Correctional employees.
In many cases, there are not enough Parole Officers and caseloads spike when just one employee takes well-deserved annual leave which is necessary for their own work-life balance and mental health. Caseloads in certain Institutions are out of control in many regions, and with the current policy to provide no backfill for those who are off on Annual or short-term leave, Indigenous employees are asked to carry an even heavier burden. This is not fair or sustainable.
Further, for those Offenders who are participating in the Pathway programs, updates are required every 6 months vs. 2 years for the general population offenders. However, there isn’t enough time to build rapport with offenders while also juggling huge caseloads. If there isn’t a consistent Elder, or one isn’t available, it is harder to evaluate some of the progress of Offenders. The shortage or lack of Elders means some of the responsibility falls entirely to the Parole officer who rely on the expertise and wisdom of Elders to support them in their assessments.
At the same time, Indigenous program reports are often thirty to forty percent longer to complete but are subject to the same guidelines and timelines as non-Indigenous reports.
In many cases, Indigenous offenders are choosing non-Indigenous programs because they’ll get out faster. Elders welcome the opportunity to work with Indigenous men and provide teachings – but we need more of them. When hiring processes are very slow, we lose a lot of people as a result.
GENERAL SUPPORT FROM CSC FOR INDIGENOUS STAFF AND PROGRAMS
The Correctional Service has limited to no budget for some Cultural Ceremonies (sometimes, Sweat Lodges are okay but no feast afterwards, which is part of the Ceremony). This is very short sighted and compromises some of the effectiveness of the healing work that Indigenous offenders are courageously pursuing.
In addition, a lot of the non-Indigenous employees have very limited appreciated of the role Indigenous staff play, and it contributes to an environment where there is a lack of respect or consideration for the transformative work Indigenous staff are attempting to do with federal Offenders, some of whom have very limited life skills and are the victims as well as perpetrators of violence prior to arriving in a federal Institution.
CSC Senior Managers and Executives need to participate in trainings currently on offer to ensure senior management may gain basic competency in Indigenous culture and dialogue and thus provide increased support. Lack of cultural sensitivity and general cultural awareness may lead to missed opportunities to improve the relationships between CSC Indigenous staff and non-Indigenous staff and may hinder the efficiency of the service.
Without this understanding, this creates the conditions for systemic racism and discrimination against offenders and staff. When it takes a year to hire a single Indigenous Community Program Officer, it means something is terribly wrong. When competent internal staff must apply to external competitions, something is wrong. The disconnect between NHQ and at the Institutional level feels quite extreme.
Some participants called for regular monthly training opportunities, improved Indigenous programming for staff and offenders, lunch and learns and more resourcing in general for Indigenous staff and Indigenous programs.