The Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada helps women navigate the many levels of the Canadian Justice System at the same time as offering basic needs and general supports. Racialized women make up a staggering 60 – 85% of their clientele, depending on the program and services. The reason for this imbalance: intergenerational trauma, poverty, and the way the justice system views women, especially racialized women. A woman of colour appearing in court without representation, support, and someone willing to stand beside her is more likely to receive a punishment that is not equal to the charged crime. Very often, they aren’t allowed the time or space to have their story be heard. The Elizabeth Fry Society’s support and services promote fairness. They help women in various ways: getting their charges dropped by diverting them to an alternative justice system; listening to their story and helping them identify some of the causes of the behaviours which lead to their involvement with the justice system; and getting them the resources to help them start to heal.
In looking back over the years of work of The Elizabeth Fry Society, there are many stories that are remarkable, but one story stood out. It was the story of a young Métis woman we will call Ann*.
Ann was only 21 years old when her life was stripped away from her by a system that called her “the most dangerous woman in Canada”.
As an adopted Métis child and former victim of sexual exploitation whose sexual slavery continued on into adulthood, this was not the first time Ann had been labeled by a system. Ann had a long history of being labeled by racially biased and oppressive systems that saw her as a “mischievous, bratty, problem child” starting as young as age twelve. Alberta Child and Family Services and the Criminal Justice system both have a long documented history of treating non-white people unfairly, and Ann was no different. These systems only saw the negatives in the behaviour of a reportedly spirited and bright child. Later, more labels came, such as incorrigible and sociopath, but it was the last label that was placed on her would that would cement her fate: Dangerous Offender under Part XXIV of the Criminal Code of Canada, a distinction that the Canadian justice system has only ever given to four women, three of which are non-white.
The Dangerous Offender Designation label not only carried with it the weight of knowing the justice system believed Ann was past the point of rehabilitation, but also of getting an indeterminate sentence. An indeterminate sentence meant that after a minimum mandatory sentence of seven year, Ann would have parole board meetings every three to five years, but she may never be released. In most cases, this designation ends up being a life sentence.
Ann had a criminal record that included convictions for weapons charges, uttering threats, breaking and entering, and robbery, but only a few charges made Ann eligible for the Dangerous Offender Designation. Those charges – forcible confinement, assault, and aggravated assault – spanned over several years and started while she was a juvenile.
The question was: Did Ann deserve the kind of extreme punishment that the Dangerous Offender Designation levied for her crimes? The Canadian Association of the Elizabeth Fry Society said no, she did not. They decided to help Ann by appealing the Dangerous Offender Designation and making sure that Ann was not left to languish, forgotten in a maximum-security prison for the rest of her life.
The Canadian Association of The Elizabeth Fry Society was founded in 1969. Their priorities are women and the justice system, women’s issues and justice issues. Their goals are increasing public awareness and promotion of decarceration for women; reducing the number of women criminalized and imprisoned in Canada; increasing the availability of community-based, publically-funded social services; making health and educational resources available for marginalized, victimized, criminalized, and imprisoned women; and increasing collaborative work amongst Elizabeth Fry Societies and other women’s groups working to address poverty, racism and other forms of oppression. When it came to Ann’s case, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary was the perfect organization to make her side of the story known and fight to have her not just released but returned to a life outside of prison that allowed her dignity and respect.
The Elizabeth Fry Society looked at Ann’s case with several lenses including the lenses of racial and gender equality. They found that although Ann’s criminal history had some violent incidents, for the most part, her crimes were not at the level of violence required to be considered for the Dangerous Offender Designation.
So why was Ann’s case different? The Elizabeth Fry Society found that Ann’s designation was based on the accepted behavioural norms for women in a misogynistic system. Ann’s behaviour was unacceptable for a Métis woman, so the door was wide open for a harsh punishment that did not fit her criminal history. Most of the men with the Dangerous Offender Designation have years of offences, victims numbering in the double, sometimes triple digits, and/or had a history of either predatory or unprovoked violent behaviour. Ann had none of these things in her criminal background. Once the Elizabeth Fry Society had a chance to level the playing field and have Ann’s case presented without the expectation that women, especially non-white women, are not equal to men, and women should be held to a higher measure for behaviour, it was clear to see she did not meet the standard for the designation.
The Elizabeth Fry Society was not done there. Ann’s first trial for the Dangerous Offender Designation was taken apart point by point. A personal diary from when Ann was in juvenile detention many years earlier was used to help establish her psychiatric profile. At her appeal, Ann’s defense team pointed out that Ann’s adoptive parents loved her and did their best to raise her but that years of living on the streets and being exploited had exposed her to a violent and retaliatory part of our society, and it became her only means of survival. With this now in her past, Ann was placed in a correctional facility that focused on rehabilitation, recovery, and spirituality, and she changed very quickly. Ann once again became a calm, kind soul, who wanted nothing to do with her former life and could see a future for herself that did not involve being owned or being forced into the sex-trade just to survive. She had no need or want to behave in a violent or anti-social manner.
The Elizabeth Fry Society had hoped that Ann’s case would cause a review of the Dangerous Offender Designation laws. It did not at that time, but they did change Ann’s life. By addressing the racial and gender bias that caused Ann to be designated a dangerous offender, the Elizabeth Fry Society gave Ann a second chance at her life.
* name changed to protect the person’s identity
This story was researched and written by Susan Gwynn. We would like to thank Katelyn Lucas, current executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, for taking the time to speak with us about this story.
In the fall of 2017, CommunityWise received a Community Initiatives Program (CIP) Canada Alberta 150 grant from the Government of Alberta to: tell stories that celebrate the history of social justice work done by CommunityWise member organizations who were led by and worked in service of racialized and Indigenous communities; and, develop podcast episodes that discuss the challenges and opportunities that ethno-racial diversity presents. This work is part of CommunityWise’s on going Anti-Racist Organizational Change (AROC) process.