Introducing the new Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections

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Introducing the new Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections

September 25, 2023

Kathy Neil, Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections, Correctional Service Canada

“The Commissioner could not have picked a better person.” said Jason Hope, Regional Deputy Commissioner for the Prairie region. “I would say she's got a pretty good road map of what has to happen for the organization to move forward and achieve the results that we need.”

Jason is talking about Kathy Neil who became Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections in May. Until now, the Indigenous Initiatives Directorate came under Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) Senior Deputy Commissioner as one of their portfolios. Kathy, as deputy commissioner, will report directly to the Commissioner, and Indigenous Initiatives becomes a sector.

“I think it is important to have a deputy commissioner to give Indigenous corrections a louder voice and to give that portfolio a seat at the table,” said Kathy. “Part of my responsibility is education and awareness. And I think a bit of challenging the status quo or challenging thought processes and making sure that we are looking at correctional issues through an Indigenous lens.”

A keen understanding of corrections 

Kathy has a keen understanding of both the operational and the intervention side of corrections.  She came up through the ranks, starting on the front line in 1996 as a correctional officer at Saskatchewan Penitentiary. She worked as a parole officer, for CORCAN (an employment and skills initiative) in Employment and Employability, Assistant Warden of Management Services, deputy warden, acting warden, and Regional Director of Health Services for the Prairie region, as well as working on the implementation of structured intervention units.

“She has an understanding of the organization as a whole as she worked her way up the ranks, earning her respect amongst staff,” said Lisa Barton, Project Officer for the community portfolio for Indigenous Initiatives at Regional Headquarters in Saskatoon. Lisa has worked with Kathy since they were both correctional officers in the ’90s.

Jason has also worked with Kathy for over 20 years. When he was warden at Sask Pen, she was deputy warden.

He echoed Lisa, “Kathy has a very good understanding for what's needed. It's not just about corrections and us putting things in place, but it's really, truly building significant partnerships with the communities and community organizations.”

Kathy’s understanding comes from a personal reference point. She is a Métis woman from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She brings an Indigenous lens that can be applied to all aspects of corrections.

Lisa noted that the Prairie region (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta), has a large Indigenous population. It also has the highest rate of overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders. Knowing how to collaborate with Indigenous organizations and communities to build support that helps Indigenous offenders return to the community in a safe way is critical. This is something that Lisa sees Kathy, as Deputy Commissioner of Indigenous Corrections, can facilitate.

“One of my focuses is to increase the community engagement,” Kathy agreed. “Then make sure that we have a way, and this is probably more important to the system than the inmates, to capture that information and make sure that we're using it meaningfully in the decision process.”

Elders are a top priority

Elders are also one of the top priorities for the new deputy commissioner. Valuing the work that Elders do and highlighting the impact they have on offenders is import

Elders play a crucial role in helping offenders,” she said. “One of my priorities is increasing the understanding of the importance of the Elders and having them feel that CSC recognizes that importance and puts credence to that engagement with community partners.

She noted the importance of giving Elders more direction and empowerment within the Commissioner’s Directive (CD) 702. Commissioner’s Directives are policies and guidelines that provide direction to staff on key areas of corrections. CD 702 provides guidance about culturally responsive interventions available for Indigenous offenders. As well, Kathy noted the work being completed to develop guidelines of how to work with Elders is equally important.

Reconnecting offenders with their Indigenous culture, and how that can play a role in reducing risk and ensuring public safety, is also an important element the deputy commissioner will focus on.

Lived experience

“She has lived experience,” said Jason. “She understands some of the challenges that First Nations communities, Métis communities, Inuit communities go through. She sees how incarceration and the criminal justice system has impacted communities, and potentially how we need to move forward and really try and work at increasing our efforts towards reconciliation, not just as a word but an initiative and as a philosophy that we move forward with.” 

“Truth and reconciliation, a big piece of it in my mind is awareness,” said Kathy. “It's recognition of the past actions of colonialization and moving forward in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. And my responsibility in this role is to ensure decision makers are aware of the negative impacts of the past and that their impacts are considered within the correctional decision-making processes. I can do that by bringing that Indigenous lens to the executive table. What I think truth and reconciliation is, is acknowledging the past and working with the communities to improve things in the present and future.”

Jason said he has already seen changes since Kathy took on the Deputy Commissioner role in May. The Prairie and Pacific regions have Section 81 facilities, such as healing lodges. These facilities are where correctional services are provided to better meet the needs of Indigenous offenders with a strong focus on culture. Indigenous concepts of justice and reconciliation are also a part of that. The programs include guidance and support from Elders. Quebec has one healing lodge, but there are no section 81 facilities in Ontario or the Atlantic Region. He said conversations have started in those regions to introduce Section 81 facilities.

Lisa Barton has kept in contact with Kathy throughout their careers. She said she is confident that under Kathy’s guidance, “there’s going to be things happening for Indigenous people. Whether they're incarcerated or in the community, we're moving to make changes to help our Indigenous people get home in a good way.”

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