Friday, January 14, 2011

Jail harms aboriginal men, hearing told
by Alexandra Paul, from Winnipeg Free Press, January 14, 2011.

WHEN War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy was a slip of a girl in The Pas, a First Nation man would watch over her wherever she went.

It was a troubled time.

Helen Betty Osborne had been murdered a year earlier. Racial tension was high, there were fist fights every weekend in the streets and aboriginal girls were vulnerable to white men.

First Nations men became the first line of defence in a hostile society.

"I was protected all the time," Kennedy said with a sad smile outside a federal hearing on violence against aboriginal women. "That doesn't happen anymore."

Today, many First Nations men are in jail or damaged by their experiences behind bars.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women stopped in Winnipeg for hearings Thursday as part of seven-city tour over 10 days this month. The committee will report to the Harper government this spring on ways to reduce the violence, St. Boniface Conservative MP Shelly Glover said.

Kennedy was among 11 witnesses listed to make five-minute presentations. She appeared with fellow First Nation Chief Francine Meeches from Swan Lake to deliver a brief from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the province's largest political organization for First Nations.

A joint RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service task force is examining 84 unsolved cases of Manitoba aboriginal women who've vanished or been killed in the last 20 years. Kennedy left the hearings with a sense of unease. She doesn't feel aboriginal women are getting any added protection from the current federal crackdown on crime.

Some aboriginal women said handing out stiffer sentences to men convicted of family violence charges only escalates the cycle of abuse.

"It's aboriginal men who are put in jail. And they come out worse," Winnipegger Karen Chevillard said. She was among a group of 25 women wearing bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan 'Decolonize yourself. Break the racist pattern.'

"They want to build more jails and if they build more jails, it will be genocide for our families," Chevillard said.

Solange Garson talked about the impact when aboriginal men are vastly over-represented in prison populations. "Jails are a breeding ground for gangs and criminal activity."

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