Senator Kim Pate, in conversation with Mi’kmaq lawyer and advocate, Dr. Pam Palmater, was the special guest speaker at PBSC’s annual National Training Conference held earlier this summer. Senator Pate has spent the last 35 years working in and around the legal and penal systems of Canada, on the behalf of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society.
After serving for many years as executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and then as a law professor at the University of Ottawa, Pate was appointed as an independent senator in 2016. As a senator, Pate continues to be one of the foremost advocates for people in prison, most recently tabling legislation that would allow judges to decide whether they should impose mandatory minimum penalties on offenders at sentencing time. Dr. Palmater said it best when she described Pate as “a warrior ally”, whose advocacy continues today from her Senate seat.
Speaking about the particular issues women in prison face, Pate and Palmater agreed that there is generally very little reason to incarcerate women, because “if they’re not in the situation where they’re negotiating poverty or violence, the chances of them being a risk to anybody is virtually nil.” About half of incarcerated women wind up behind bars on offences of personal violence, but as Pate noted “virtually every act is reactive, and much of it is defensive.” The criminal justice system consistently fails to acknowledge that “the way that a woman might have to defend herself or react to violence is very different from how a man might react to violence.”
Pate also observed that two-thirds of female prisoners are mothers, and most were the sole supports for their kids before they went to prison. The practice of incarceration has a profoundly negative impact on children, with “90 per cent of kids ending up in the care of the state.”
Asked by Palmater how the prison experience is different for Indigenous women, Pate explained that Indigenous women are “under-protected but over-policed,” representing 40 per cent of all females in federal prison but only five per cent of the national population. In federal prisons, one in every five Indigenous women attended a residential school, two-thirds came to prison directly from the foster care system, and 91 per cent have experienced physical or sexual abuse.Pate also explained that while “women in particular are massively over-segregated,” Indigenous women are further overrepresented in this group. Segregation units, or “prisons within prisons” as Palmater put it, are indistinguishable from the conditions of solitary confinement. Prisoners spend up to 23 hours a day in pods, experiencing limited human contact.
Dedicated to using her Senate platform to work on behalf of incarcerated individuals, Pate joked: “One of my favourite things about my new job is I’m taking senators to jail”. She added: “The argument I’ve been making to senators is, if you’re going to be passing these laws, you better come and see where the people are going.”
PBSC is grateful to Thomson Reuters for hosting this special dinner, which kicks-off the training conference we run for the 50 law students we hire to run our local programs across Canada. In her closing remarks, PBSC National Director Nikki Gershbain thanked Pate and Palmater for a candid, powerful discussion – and for inspiring our law student staff. As it turned out, it wasn’t only law students who felt inspired. As Mary Wahbi of Fogler Rubinoff LLP, a longtime PBSC volunteer lawyer, remarked at the end of the event: “If I had experienced this as a student, I would have had a difficult time going into private practice.”