‘Storytelling is such an important way of learning and teaching’
“I just wish I could wear my moccasins.”
Other women at the workshop chime in with their own wishes. One wants books from an Indigenous perspective on the shelves of the library. Another yearns to express herself through beadwork.
They were allowed beading in federal prison, but not here at the Leclerc Institute, the provincial women’s prison.
Eight per cent of women sent to prison in Quebec are Indigenous, reflecting a longstanding overrepresentation in systems across Canada. Yet even amid a growing awareness of the disturbing connection between incarceration and colonization, these numbers are on the rise.
Felice Yuen, associate professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science, hopes her research can help these women find their voices. As part of her work, she runs workshops facilitated by Wanda Gabriel, an assistant professor of social work at McGill and citizen of Kanehsatake (Oka) Kanienʼkehá꞉ka Nation.
They provide a forum in which participants can connect to their cultural identity, articulate their pain and celebrate their strengths.
“One of the things we bring to the prison is a box of Kleenex,” Yuen says. “There’s a sense of safety and security and a level of trust.”
Like the workshops that form the core of her research, the partnerships that make them possible depend on cultivating bonds.
The power of partnership
Yuen enjoys a close relationship with the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFS) of Quebec, which supports and advocates for incarcerated women in the province. Aleksandra Zajko, assistant executive director of the EFS, has held multiple positions in the 10 years she and Yuen have collaborated.
The EFS runs community arts programs for criminalized women, but they noticed these were not reaching the Indigenous community.
So Zajko, Yuen and Gabriel adapted a program called Mommy Reads to Me, in which mothers would choose books from a large stack and make recordings of themselves reading to send their children.
The revised version was based instead on traditional storytelling.
“Wanda thought it would be a good idea to have a legend,” says Yuen. “Storytelling is such an important way of learning and teaching. So the women created their own stories, or legends, with their children or other young loved ones in mind.”
The workshops incorporated other cultural elements, too.
“It was so powerful for them to come in and smell the sweetgrass and hear the drum,” Yuen adds.
These lessons were carried forward into a three-year partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for Yuen’s current project, Supporting Indigenous women: Indigenous women’s rehabilitation needs in Quebec’s provincial prison.
“This work could not be done if there were not all these partners involved, because we need to complement our different knowledges,” says Zajko. She describes being contacted by Quebec Native Women at an opportune moment. The organization became a key collaborator on Yuen’s partnership grant, which includes Gabriel and Elizabeth Fast, assistant professor of applied human sciences, as co-applicants.
“We’re not actually waiting for a final report to be done and put on a table,” Zajko says. The EFS is already bringing some information about the living conditions that the women share with the research team to the upper management of Leclerc, itself a partner on the grant.
“This allows us to already work on changing things from the inside,” she says.
A legacy of colonization
The workshops incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing, sharing and communicating. They also bring in a lens of colonization.
“The argument has been made, and women in prison have articulated, that prison is just another residential school at the end of the day,” says Yuen. “They’re housed, they’re locked away and their programs and services are from a Western perspective.”
Activities such as the making of medicine pouches provide “a medium through which these emotions can be explored,” she says. “With the more conventional approaches to understanding trauma, a lot of the knowledge hasn’t been integrated or felt.”
The impact of the workshops on the participants is notable.
“I’m in shock that something so beautiful could come from me,” one woman shared. “I come from so much more than just that abuse. You know, there’s so much more to my story than just what I’ve lived.”
Yuen is grateful to have a facilitator in Gabriel, who is able to connect with the women.
“Whether they talk about violence or alcohol or the suicides of their loved ones, Wanda’s able to respond to what the women say in a supportive way,” she says.
Understanding the impact of colonization shapes Yuen’s perception of her role as an academic.
“We need to decolonize our colonized practices, even the way in which we do research, the dissemination of it. It can’t just be up there in the ivory tower.”
Paths to healing
“They’ve had pretty difficult life paths in a lot of cases, with a lot of violence,” Zajko says of the experiences of many criminalized women. “The prison is a moment where everything falls apart for them. The little that is left of their self-esteem is destroyed by the shame of being incarcerated.”
Group workshops like the ones facilitated by Gabriel promote a sense of belonging that can go a long way toward supporting the women as they reflect on their lives and seek to rebuild their senses of self.
These reflections are captured in sketch notes created by graduate student Brittany Weisgarber and form a core aspect of the workshops.
“Wanda is able to create a safe space for the women to feel and express themselves,” says Yuen. “There’s a certain level of vulnerability that happens and is necessary for healing.
Yuen recalls the first session of the Mommy Reads to Me project that influenced her current work. The participants had been so impressed by Gabriel, whom they felt understood them, that they returned from lunch in their sectors with more of their peers. “Suddenly there was that sense of ‘I can identify with this.’”
That sentiment has been building from the moment the researchers walked inside Leclerc.
“You guys passed through the centre with Wanda,” recalls Zajko. “She was wearing something” the incarcerated women had noticed, and it made them feel more comfortable attending.
“That’s right,” says Yuen. “She was wearing moccasins.”
4TH SPACE will feature Felice Yuen’s current project, including sketch notes contributed by graduate student Brittany Weisgarber, until September 27 as part of the Health Matters programming.