A proposed 24-bed healing lodge for Indigenous women in conflict with the law has caused a social media uproar among residents in southwest Scarborough who are worried about safety and the overconcentration of services for vulnerable people in their community.
But board members for the Toronto-based Thunder Women Healing Lodge Society say the facility proposed for Kingston Rd. between Danforth and Midland Aves. poses no safety threat and is one way to address this month’s damning report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“People need to understand this is not a jail and these women are not inmates,” said board president Patti Pettigrew, who is Algonquin.
The program is for women who have served their sentences and are transitioning back into society or who are on bail and not convicted of any crime, she said.
“We have suffered from residential schools, the Sixties scoop, overrepresentation in the foster care and corrections systems,” Pettigrew added. “We need to provide support, rehabilitation and meaningful reintegration of Aboriginal women after incarceration.”
Area Councillor Gary Crawford’s Facebook page and other social media sites blew up last week with angry comments in advance Wednesday’s public meeting about the project. Many area residents questioned the location, noting its proximity to a public elementary school, social housing, homeless shelters and other community services.
Pettigrew said she hopes the meeting will clear up any misconceptions and build a case for support.
The six-storey building proposed for the corner of Kingston Rd. and Cliffside Dr. includes commercial space on the ground floor with single rooms and apartments on the upper floors. It will provide restorative care, supportive housing and gathering spaces for cultural programming, including an outdoor sweat lodge. The healing lodge would be the first of its kind in Ontario and only one of three in the country, Pettigrew said.
It should not be confused with the Corrections Canada healing lodge in Saskatchewan for women still serving their sentences, she said. That facility made headlines last fall when convicted child-killer Terri-Lynne McClintic was sent there after serving eight years of a life sentence for her role in the 2009 kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year-old Tori Stafford. McClintic was returned to secure custody after a public outcry.
By contrast, the Thunder Women program will be run by and for Indigenous women on federal parole or provincial probation. Two staff, including elders and counsellors with expertise in addictions and trauma, will be on-duty at all times, including overnight. And all the women will be vetted by program staff for suitability, Pettigrew said.
Indigenous women make up just 3 per cent of the Canadian population, said Kelly Potvin, board vice-president and executive director of Elizabeth Fry Toronto, which provides mainstream transitional housing and support for women in conflict with the law. And yet they make up 43 per cent of inmates in federal and provincial jails.
“About 95 per cent of Indigenous women in Canadian jails are suffering from untreated trauma,” said Potvin, who is part Métis. “We are putting these women at risk of becoming the next murdered and missing (Indigenous women) by not providing this type of service when they are released. Healing lodges are pivotal to stopping the cycle.”
Ward 20 Scarborough Southwest has the largest concentration of Indigenous residents in the city, Potvin noted. According to city staff, almost 1,700 Indigenous people live in the ward.
“These women are already here,” she said. “We are just offering them the supports they need.”
Women living in Elizabeth Fry’s 21-bed halfway house have never posed a threat to their neighbours, she noted. And that home, which has been operating on the edge of Cabbagetown for almost 50 years, has half as many staff as what is being proposed for the healing lodge, she added.
The Thunder Women group has raised about half of the $12 million cost of construction through federal and provincial grants and has secured bridge financing to proceed later this year.
Eight beds, funded by Ottawa and Queen’s Park, are reserved for women on parole or probation. The remaining four beds are for woman on bail awaiting trial.
When the women have completed their parole and probation and are ready for more independent living, they will be able to move into one of 12 affordable apartments on the upper three floors of the building.
Since many of the women are mothers, the facility’s stable housing and culturally relevant programs will help some of them regain access to their children in foster care, Potvin added.
A culturally based social enterprise to provide employment for residents is planned for the main-floor commercial space. And special events, open to the community, will be staged in a circular assembly hall, also on the main floor, Potvin said.
“We hope to be a resource for Indigenous women living in the community as well,” she said.
Local resident Larry Latourneau, who lives about 1.5 km from the site and has two elementary school children, has seen the concerns of his neighbours on social media, but is keeping an open mind.
“People need to wait to ask their questions before jumping to conclusions,” he said in an interview. “If it is what they say it is, then I am willing to give them a chance.”
Latourneau, who lived close to the Birchmount men’s residence before it was relocated to a former Comfort Inn property on Kingston Rd. near Bellamy Rd. several years ago, said these types of facilities enrich the community.
“There was never an issue. My kids walked past the residence on their way to school every day. We actually miss having these guys in our neighbourhood,” he said.
Social media comments suggesting the healing lodge should not be located in the area are “disappointing,” Latourneau said.
“We have a corrections system, not a penal system,” he said. “It’s not about punishment, it’s about trying to help people get back into society. If we are not going to allow that, then we might as well not let anybody out.”
But he acknowledges the tight-knit Cliffside community, where many residents grew up and now are raising their own families, is leery of change.
Crawford said the property where the healing lodge is slated to be built is zoned for mixed commercial-residential use and requires only minor variances to proceed.
City planning staff have raised no objections and there is no legal requirement for the society to hold a public information meeting before its June 27 committee of adjustment hearing to deal with the minor variances, he added.
But, as he does with all groups, Crawford said he strongly urged the society to hold a meeting “to have a conversation with the community.”
“I have remained fairly neutral about this,” he said. “But I represent the community and I feel it’s important that the community has the opportunity to have a dialogue with the applicants of this proposal.”
Crawford admits he was concerned about the location of the healing lodge when he was first approached about the project 2-1/2 years ago. But he says his more recent involvement with the society has eased most of his concerns.
“Not only do we have the largest Indigenous community in my ward,” he said. “But the services that are provided to assist the Indigenous community are close by.”
The community meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Birchmount Community Centre, 93 Birchmount Rd.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb