The overrepresentation of Aboriginals in our jails is a growing problem, and their number has more than doubled in the past ten years. According to the Correctional Investigator’s latest report, for the first time, a quarter of men in Canadian federal prisons are Aboriginal. It’s even higher for women. Nearly 36 per cent of female federal inmates are Aboriginal, while less than five per cent of all Canadians are Indigenous.

If the First Peoples Justice Centre existed some ten years ago Cindy Wabanonik’s life might have been different. She moved to Montreal from Val d’Or at the age of 19 looking for opportunities, but she’s had problems with the law ever since.

“I came to Montreal by myself,” says Wabanonik. “I felt free here, like I could be who I am. I didn’t feel judged because there are so many different cultures. In Val d’Or there’s only Native or white people. There was a lot of racism.”

Nearly 36 per cent of female federal inmates are Aboriginal, while less than five per cent of all Canadians are Indigenous.

She’s not the only one coming here. According to the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study conducted by the Environics Institute, Montreal has the fastest growing Native community in the country. But the lack of resources makes things difficult for them when they arrive.

“No one is going to rent you a place when you’re on welfare, especially when you’re a Native woman with five kids. I know because it happened to me. I paid my bills on time, built my credit and learnt the hard way. It’s a good thing that I had parents to teach me. But a lot of my clients, they have no parents and I could be in their shoes,” explains Patricia Eshkibok, the only Native courtworker for the Montreal area with Native Para-judicial Services of Quebec (SPAQ). She also sits on the First Peoples Justice Centre’s board of directors.

“I had a job up north, a place, my life was going pretty good,” says Wabanonik. “When I came here I was considered an adult. But I didn’t how things worked, if I would have known, I would have made better choices.”

Those choices led her to do time in jail.

“I used to be in a gang, I used to deal drugs. I felt like I had to do those things to survive. I needed support.”

With Montreal’s First Peoples Justice Centre therapy and support will be available.

“When Native people come here they don’t find community support. They’re more susceptible. Prevention will be a major aspect our work,” explains Wayne Robinson, the centre’s president, who also works for Native Montreal, an organization which contributes to the health, cultural strength and success of Aboriginals.

“No one is going to rent you a place when you’re on welfare, especially when you’re a Native woman with five kids.”

The First Peoples Justice Centre will also inform Native people of their rights.

“Sometimes the Native person will get intimidated. It’s all in French. They have no idea what’s going on. Many of them just plead guilty so they can get out of there. But what they don’t get, is now they have a criminal record and it’ll affect a lot of things,” says Eshkibok.

“I didn’t know my rights. It’s like you live in a cocoon, when you come here you don’t know how city life works,” says Wabanonik.

If she did, perhaps she would have known about the Gladue system.

Almost two decades ago the Gladue was created by the Supreme Court of Canada to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in jail. A Gladue report is a native person’s biography that the judge can request and take into account when considering sentencing.

But as Wayne Robinson explains: “It’s a mechanism that isn’t put in practice. You have a justice system that doesn’t understand Aboriginal people and they don’t understand the justice system.”

Robinson says the centre will let the accused know that they have access to a Gladue report, and more people will be trained to fill them out.

“We need public-awareness, we need to get the word out so that when something happens they know who to call,” he says.

To get the word out, Eshkibok would like to see the creation of a 1-800 number, available to Native people sent to holding cells 24/7.

Another priority for the centre is education.

“I’ve seen judges who have no clue what a Native person is about. There’s a lot of ignorance about who we are. There’s a need to train people in the justice system,” says Eshkibok.

Eventually Cindy Wabanonik was back in court, this time to fight for custody of her kids.

“A lot of times we discover that if the least bit of work had been done, a plea bargain could have been made.”

“The judge had a lack of knowledge about First Nations,” she says. “Judging me as a parent because we raise our kids differently.”

“A lot of the people caught up in the justice system in Montreal are vulnerable. They’re living on the street, they can’t afford a lawyer, they get legal aid and a lot of times we discover that if the least bit of work had been done, a plea bargain could have been made.” says Robinson.

The First Peoples Justice Centre of Montreal has done significant research in the process of securing funding. Its findings show that: “Native people living on the street often receive fines for offences such as public intoxication, drug use, possession, and sleeping in public spaces. Default on a fine payment is a common occurrence.”

The result is incarceration, a criminal record, and more problems for the Aboriginal person.

That’s something Wabanonik can attest to.

“Because of my lifestyle and unresolved issues from the past, I started using drugs. I wasn’t paying rent, I was hanging out on the street, to the point where the only thing I owned was the clothes on my back. I was homeless.”

She also started collecting tickets from police.

“One of my clients once told me he was looking forward to going to jail,” says Eshkibok. “It was his sanctuary, he wasn’t going to have to worry about where to sleep or what to eat.”

According to Quebec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, the Aboriginal population in Montreal is one of the most discriminated-against groups in the city.

“I think, personally, it’s due to racism and discrimination in the courts, with the police, and in the jails.”

Eshkibok says that’s one of the major reasons why there’s an overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in our jails.

“I think, personally, it’s due to racism and discrimination in the courts, with the police, and in the jails. Then throw in a little bit of poverty, third world living conditions, lack of education, trauma.”

She says it’s a vicious cycle.

“My clients lost their identity, their culture, their language and couldn’t live with that. They numbed their feelings with drugs and alcohol. They got into trouble and went to jail, then they got out and went back, and got out and went back.”

That cycle continues for Wabanonik.

“I still have court dates, my next one in June. For what? I don’t know, I have to go and find out, intoxicated in public or something,” she says.

But with the new centre, guidance will be there after sentencing. There will be follow-up, reintegration and work with elders.

Until the centre is up and running the Native Women’s Shelter has been helping when it can.

“Depending on the crime we will take them in. We have to keep kids and women here safe first and foremost,” says Nakuset, the Executive Director of the shelter.

Wabanonik lives there now and is working hard to turn things around.

“The shelter gave me the resources and I got treatment,” she says. “It was a long process. Today I can’t believe I did those things. Hurting others, I was hurting myself.”

But had a centre like this been there ten years ago perhaps it could have saved her pain.

“I lost everything. My kids. My home. I’m starting from scratch. I share my story because it might help somebody. There’s hope for everybody. I still talk to the people on the street; I’m not above them. I think they really need help and guidance.”

In the meantime she continues her fight to get her kids back.

“I’m positive one day I will. From all the help I get here. I’m on welfare and with the little I have I make it up north and treat my kids. I hope the judge sees that. My kids are happy; their foster parents are great. I thank them. They know I’ll come back.”

Montreal’s First Peoples Justice Centre has hired its first coordinator who will work to get the centre up and running.

“We’re confident that we’ll be able to get sustainable financing from the provincial and federal governments,” says Robinson.

Montreal is late compared to Toronto. Aboriginal Legal Services there have had their own Gladue courts since 2001.

“It’s a shame that we’re years behind but there’s willingness. This is a major priority right now. You can’t do anything about the past but let’s do what’s best for the Aboriginal community now. I’m optimistic that this centre will have a real impact,” Robinson added.