Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Blocking Their Path to Prison: Song and Music as Healing Methods for Canada's Aboriginal Women

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Blocking Their Path to Prison: Song and Music as Healing Methods for Canada's Aboriginal Women

Article excerpt

Introduction

At the opening of an aboriginal justice conference in the mountains of Alberta, a large shell was brought around, filled with smoldering sweetgrass. Each of us wafted that beautifully-scented smoke over our heads, eyes, ears...asking for its assistance to think, see, hear, speak and feel only in healthy and respectful ways during our time together. The discussion leader...then spoke about language differences, explaining that aboriginal languages were not as much noun- centered as they were verb-centered, trying to emphasize not the thing-aspect of Creation but the pattern, flow and function aspect... While the discussion was fascinating, still had to wonder: why I was being told these things at a justice conference? Then...a very small event hit me...

Rupert Ross

Assistant Crown Attorney (retired)

Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General1

Canada's conventional prisons have been characterized as the contemporary equivalents to residential schools of bygone decades notorious for their destructive effects on generations of Aboriginal peoples2 (Mallea, 2000; Ross, 2014). Aboriginal peoples of Canada are over-represented in these prisons.3 This over-representation has been a persistent problem for decades. The problem has been pointed to by scholars and governmental officials since the late 1960s (Cattarinich, 1996). However, it was paid special attention to in the early 1990s. Rejecting the official narratives that often blamed Aboriginal inmates for their incarceration (such as substance abuse and unemployment), scholars and activists argued that it was the broader colonial legacy (cultural oppression, social inequality, loss of selfgovernment and systemic racism and discrimination) that underlay the over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian prisons.4 They also argued that the colonial legacy had gender-specific consequences that accounted for over-representation of Aboriginal women in prisons. They were found to be "the most disadvantaged and marginalized prison population in Canada" (Arbor, 1996, p. 218). Research also show that Aboriginal women's lives outside (or prior to) prison is characterized by poverty, abuse, violence, low self-esteem, stigmatization, prostitution, suicide, and addiction. For them, it was realized, prison had become "an extension of life on the outside" and not conducive to rehabilitation (Sugar & Fox, 1990, p. 10). Assessments of rehabilitative needs of Aboriginal female inmates persistently showed that they were more likely than non-Aboriginal women to have needs in multiple areas. These included marital and family relationships, employment, substance abuse, and social interaction. Compared to 38% of non-Aboriginal women, approximately 66% of Aboriginal women in federal custody were assessed as having five or more rehabilitative needs (Mahony, 2015). This suggested a higher probability of recidivism for Aboriginal women, which in turn, partially explained the over-representation of Aboriginal women in correctional facilities.

It was realized that a process of decolonization was required if Aboriginal women were to effectively respond to the harmful impacts of colonial legacy. Decolonization was the "process of addressing historic trauma and unravelling the tragic aftereffects of colonization" (Archibald, 2006, p. iv). It required cultural revitalization and institutional reform that would allow Aboriginal peoples to reclaim their traditional culture and to reassert their distinct identity. The cultural revival would take various forms: a revival of Aboriginal religion, a return to Aboriginal healing methods, and promotion of Aboriginal art, language, and teachings (Wilson, 2004). Aboriginal scholars, artists, and writers would challenge the colonial values and ideologies and would reintroduce Aboriginal values and view of life. Steps were also to be taken to change Canada's political and legal system in order to reduce systemic racism and injustice. …

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