As many of you are aware, Kinew James, a 35-year-old federally sentenced Aboriginal woman, died at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon on January 20th, 2013. Ms. James had mental health needs, having admitted to self-harming behaviour and had threatened to hang herself while incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. And while Ms. James’ story is tragic, her struggle to obtain the mental health services she required is far from unique.

Canadian Aboriginal women comprise 4% of the Canadian female population, yet are disproportionally represented in our federal correctional institution, comprising 32% of federally sentenced women. Aboriginal women also disproportionally represent federally sentenced women with mental health needs.

Cultural oppression, racism, and marginalization, compounded by disturbing rates of long-term mental, physical and sexual abuse, and overwhelming rates of poverty make Aboriginal females more susceptible to mental health illnesses and to engage in violent criminal behaviour. When they enter federal correctional institutions they are more likely to be categorized as severely dependent on alcohol, and are more likely to self-harm.

Despite substantive research, which shows that federally sentenced Aboriginal women are disproportionately likely to face mental health issues, we continue to treat them simply as criminals, unworthy of compassion or respect, rather than individuals with their own human rights, victims of a system that is designed to see them fail.

By expanding mental health services in our correctional institutions, we have an opportunity to change this reality. When designing mental health services, we need to ensure that programs and services are created in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, and that they are tailored to specifically address the mental health needs of Aboriginal women. Emphasis should be placed on individualized programming so that each patient has their own healing plan. Healing plans should include institutional services, skills development, treatment and cultural programs, and incorporate balance, individual autonomy, non-coercion, collectivism, interconnectedness, and healing. Each facility should provide access to Aboriginal staff, culturally-sensitive training for all staff members, culturally-relevant programs, access to Aboriginal forms of healing, and access to Aboriginal elders.

We have a duty, a moral and legal obligation, to ensure that federally sentenced Aboriginal women with mental health needs are provided their entitled healthcare.