I have been struggling to put this into words here.
Today with this post, I will try to put these thoughts into words here.
I have written about restorative justice before and I have written about my experiences (somewhat) within the (in)justice system, and where I am today—in a much better place. What I have not written about are my experiences before arriving to that point in time.
When I was much younger, I was very much into my culture—my family travelled to powwows, we danced, and we participated in ceremony. I remember I was even apart of this dance troupe back home. Being a member of this dance troupe, we sometimes went to participate in mini powwows and cultural activities with inmates at the local remand centre. I remember dancing there and being able to share what dancing meant for me as young Indigenous woman.
I don’t know what happened but eventually I stopped doing these cultural activities and I distanced myself entirely from my culture. I can’t really tell you what happened or why it happened. It is just something I cannot remember. Perhaps this is a response to some of the trauma I experienced later on.
Then, by the time I was 17/18 years old, I was arrested. The last time I was arrested I was 23 years old. In both instances, it was for similar reasons, but I won’t go into details here. For the first instance, I received a conditional discharge. On the final and last time, I also received a conditional discharge. Conditional discharge means that discharge came with certain conditions that had to be fulfilled.
During the first instance, I was placed in remand at the same centre that I used to dance at in my traditional regalia—strange how that happened. I was placed on suicide watch. The courts also stated that they did not want me to live on my own and my family was too worried about my own safety if I returned home. I ended up being placed in a women’s shelter where I met other Indigenous women fleeing domestic violence situations. As part of my conditional discharge I had to participate in counselling, follow a curfew, and live at the women’s shelter (until after the three month mark where I was expected to find a permanent place to live). The crazy logic the court used to keep me in remand is the same logic that contributed to me no longer being able to move back home with my family or to move back to my old apartment—they said, “it was for my own safety.” I was displaced from my own home and my own family. I don’t know how that is considered safe. Then, the counselling was also meant to re-introduce me to my culture, and I don’t know if it succeeded or not.
When I moved to London ON, these same cycles continued—getting arrested, conditional discharges, displacement (but the more extreme of displacement, homelessness). It just sucked big time since I moved to London ON to get away from the problems I experienced back home. Yet, the same shit kept happening, except this time in London ON where I had no family and very few friends.
Then I met a counsellor who literally changed my life (one of the two who meant a lot to me in London ON). It really didn’t clue in the struggles I was going through until I was no longer receiving counselling (you know, because I fulfilled my conditional discharge). I had forgotten her name, much like I forgotten every other counsellor’s name I have previously seen. There are just some things you don’t want to remember, and when you are forced to see someone you don’t really want to see (because I sometimes didn’t want to see these counsellors but I literally had too or else… back to jail) you tend to forget about them. However, I went to a presentation on residential schools during my second year at Western University, which is the university I just recently completed my studies in criminology (funny how that happens, eh?) with a minor in women’s studies. I had no idea who the woman speaking was until she started to speak. It was the same woman who I had to see as part of my conditional discharge.
I will never forget the words when she described how residential schools took away Indigenous cultures, and her work as a counsellor in the justice system, that it was now a different institution that was giving it back. Specifically she said, “It’s funny how Aboriginal [men & women] now learn their culture in a Federal institution when it was an institution that took it away.”
And this is where my struggles with my culture come from today. I sometimes feel ashamed that, you know, I used to practice it but then lost it, and that it was an institution that insisted on saying that I had to plead guilty in order to access the supports (my culture) to help me overcome the situation(s) I was in. You would think that it would be the other way around, right? Maybe, you know, have Indigenous people access the supports they need to help them overcome situations instead of waiting until they are in the system. That’s why I am not too fond of the restorative justice approach especially for Indigenous women who have been victims of violence but are in turn arrested themselves. I struggle with my culture because I sometimes feel ashamed. I sometimes resist re-learning it so much that I avoid certain practices or situations. As I sit here today writing this post, I am struggling with this sort of uncomfortableness again. But it’s funny how this uncomfortableness works.
I am sitting here today, working towards law school in the fall and attending a pre-law program with a group of wonderful and amazing Indigenous students who I am learning from each day I am in class with them. It’s funny because like my friends joke, who would have thought I would have studied and then graduated university with a specialization in criminology!? Then when I think back to when I was younger, who would have thought I would have went back to that remand centre not as a visitor but as an inmate?! Albeit that situation is more ironic as opposed to funny… remand isn’t funny. Then, who would have thought I would be here studying law and working toward law school in the fall?!
I am grateful for this experience and even the uncomfortableness that it brings. It can only go up from here. Life is great (and also entertaining, maybe?) that way!