A passion for justice
By Laura Eggertson
Lisa Monchalin knows the statistics about Indigenous victimization and incarceration by heart.
Only 4% of the Canadian population identify as Indigenous, but in 2014, almost a quarter of the murder victims in Canada were First Nations, Métis or Inuit. Equally concerning to Monchalin is that more than 25% of people in federal prisons are Indigenous.
As the country’s first Indigenous woman to earn a PhD in criminology, Monchalin is delving into the reasons behind the damning figures.
In the process, she uses her perspective as a woman of Algonquin, Métis, Huron and Scottish ancestry to educate Canadians on the role colonization has played in creating injustice for Indigenous peoples.
“I want to reduce crime and harm and victimization affecting Indigenous people in this country,” Monchalin says. “I want to make a difference while I’m on this planet.”
Monchalin, who received her doctorate from uOttawa in 2012, teaches criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC, where many of her students hope to become police officers, border guards, penitentiary workers or social workers. They will be on the front lines of services — yet before they take her class, few understand the impact colonization and racism have had in producing inequity.
“They’re working in these jobs in the criminal justice system with little or no knowledge of the realities of life for Indigenous people,” she says. “There really needs to be massive education out there about Indigenous peoples, justice and realities.”
To address the education gap, Monchalin wrote The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016). In writing the textbook for college and university students, Monchalin cited the work of First Nations scholars, incorporated Indigenous knowledge and quoted elders in order to “uphold that knowledge and these voices,” she says.
Monchalin explores the impact of broken treaties, disenfranchisement, poverty, the residential school system, the “Sixties Scoop” (when First Nations children were adopted into homes without Indigenous cultural connections), the cap on educational funding, and the abduction and murder of Indigenous women.
The power of education to expose injustice runs as a theme through Monchalin’s book. And she knows from personal experience the power of influential teachers to change lives.
As a high school student in Ontario’s Niagara region, Monchalin wondered if she was capable of going to university. She credits her high school rowing coach, Dom Senese, with helping her to achieve the athletic scholarship that took her to Eastern Michigan University.
At uOttawa's Faculty of Social Sciences, another important mentor encouraged her to have confidence in her abilities. Criminology professor Irvin Waller supported her through struggles with self-doubt, she says, urging her to balance mind and body by continuing to develop both her academic and athletic sides. One result — she ran a season with uOttawa’s cross country team while doing her PhD.
“What drives Lisa to achieve the often impossible is an incredible passion to actually make a difference for Indigenous peoples in Canada,” Waller says. “And that passion is very much centred around stopping violence.”
Preventing violence starts with debunking stereotypes, such as the myths that Indigenous people don’t pay taxes or are alcoholics — misconceptions Monchalin addresses in her book.
“Indigenous people start to internalize a lot of these stereotypes,” she says. “We start to think, ‘maybe I can’t do this’.”
Monchalin hopes her work will not only help to promote Indigenous knowledge but also to catalyze support for implementing solutions.
She cites the years it took to call an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women as an example of the systemic racism and injustice she is driven to combat.
“If any other population was experiencing these rates of violence, of missing and murdered, there would be a national call to action,” she says. “It would not have taken this long. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Related story (CBC Radio): What's JB the First Lady reading?
Lisa Monchalin. Photo: Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works Photography