Summary of the Event — by Laurel Cassels




(L. Cassels, edited by J. Harris and J. McLeod Rogers)

In December 2012 our team of university and community researchers held a Search Conference aimed at drawing ideas from different sectors of the community. The Search Conference model belongs to Emery (1994) who emphasizes that this process of problem solving is rooted in oral tradition and follows a narrative design by which ideas unfold during the search process. We engaged a transcriber who took notes for simultaneous viewing. We featured two keynote speakers who, once their presentations were over, joined discussion circles as full participants. We now have a website to extend the possibility of interactive sharing so that as much as possible the co-op project belongs to the wider community.

This conference was conceived by our team as a means of focusing the knowledge sets of academics and practitioners on the idea of establishing a social co-operative (or coop) for women transitioning from prison. We invited people from three fields: literacy, justice/legal system, and social enterprise, including some members of the community at large, to search their prior knowledge and experience for the purpose of developing strategies.


In the SELECTION OF PARTICIPANTS, our criteria were as follows:

– representation of prominent organizations in each field

– fair representation of Aboriginal perspectives

– balance of scholars and practitioners

– inclusion of groups with an interest in social co-ops: BUILD, Elizabeth Fry Society, John Howard Society and Eagle Women’s Lodge (Native Women’s Transition Centre)

– people who were already connected through the work but with a thought to the networking possibilities, as well.


During the INTRODUCTION OF THE PROCESS the search conference was characterized as a ‘funnelling down’. That is to say, facilitators invited wide participation with a gradual narrowing toward specific actions. Day One would be for generalized discussion of the relevant topics while Day Two would focus on goals and strategies such as establishing a co-op, or social enterprise.


We all came from different disciplines to bring the various pieces of the puzzle together. We started in a large group then broke into smaller groups. This process is collaborative and transparent. Simultaneous transcription and visual sharing of ideas allowed for precise recording of everyone’s contributions. At the end of Day ne, all that was recorded by the smaller groups was transcribed and distributed.


The search conference process, which traditionally takes 3 days and isolates the group (creating an island community), was modified for the convenience of participants to a day and a half in a seminar room at the University of Winnipeg. The conference began with large group discussion while simultaneously recording ideas that emerged from the “oral culture” of the group and the city. Winnipeg is a small ‘village city’ where many people know each other and can interact with one another face-to-face. The hope was that all present would take part in this sharing and build strategies as a group.  Emery, who originated the process, insists that participants not take individual notes since, as they have been instructed in advance, the group objective is the priority.


The following is a breakdown and summary of the discussions and ideas which arose through this process. Systems theory dictates that, while concrete and specific action is the goal of these discussions, there are a wide range of ‘fixes’ that are required in order to truly transform the lives of women transitioning from incarceration. While our small group discussions varied greatly, we did notice certain cross-overs and themes. They are presented, here, in the original three categories identified above.


General Discussion

                As a large group, participants were asked to brainstorm the following idea:

“What are some changes in Canada, affecting our daily lives and work, which are leading to a probable and hopeful future?”

                Participants cited a growing awareness of human rights and environmental issues. They lauded what they perceived as an expanding appreciation for experiential knowledge and positive role modelling as a strategy in some communities. What were raised mostly, though, were concerns for a world gone too far in the direction of neo-liberal and individualist values. Specific concerns included the following:

  • A lack of support and funding for social programs of every kind.
  • A lack of awareness and, therefore, funding to community initiatives such as co-ops or social enterprise.
  • Community organizations seeking funding are encouraged to use a ‘deficit model’, defining weaknesses and problems rather than identifying strengths and hope.
  • A lack of low-cost housing and the resultant ‘warehousing’ of members of several less-privileged sectors of society. Particularly affected, in Winnipeg, are Aboriginal people, inner-city residents and those suffering from mental health issues and/or physical disabilities.
  • Legal system dollars spent largely on expansion and creation of prisons.
  • Prisons provide no real life skills or education. Inmates are kept idle with no eye to the future.
  • Lifelong criminalization of offenders is preventing true rehabilitation. Meaningful employment becomes nearly impossible.
  • Little understanding or education around the issue of colonization and the resulting, lingering racism. White privilege is still very much alive and well in Canada.
  • More effort needed to ensure better educational outcomes for marginalised members of society.
  • Women are victimised at an alarming rate, with marginalised women the most vulnerable.


It’s a long list of concerns and daunting, to be sure, but participants also acknowledged some emerging ideals that bring hope. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was raised as a “good vehicle to start” with, as were community-style movements such as The Occupy Movement and Idle No More. People advocated for using holistic approaches such as the Aboriginal-based Neechi Principles to “come together culturally” and confront the “Canadian crisis” in an “assets based” manner. A commitment to developing community development approaches (as opposed to assimilation of the marginalised into the majority) and the use of mentors in a “peer tutoring model” were two strategies recommended for helping people to “share and come together” in a way “that could be positive”. Government and its agencies need to stop simply “putting out fires” as a means of managing people and communities; take a proactive approach to rehabilitation by providing opportunities for those incarcerated to plan for their lives after prison. Participants also asserted that incarcerated women should have access to these services closer to their chosen communities and/or families, in order that they not become isolated and hopeless.


Small Group Discussions: LITERACY

                The group preferred to use “literacies” (plural) as an indication that the term should not be allowed to be defined, by government or other institutions, as any one set of “essential skills”. Literacies are relative, multivalent and difficult to measure. Literacy should not be measured in terms of correct use of the English language or ability to navigate institutional systems. Written wisdom has no more value than oral truths. The goal for individuals should be creative thinking and problem solving, “living and learning their capabilities”.

A major concern for members of the group is inclusion. When we recognise a multitude of possible literacies, we are also recognising the possibility that the ‘expert’ may not be an authority figure, after all. Women in need of services are the most reliable source of guidance on what those services might look like. Aboriginal people possess the knowledge of who they are. All “cultures have been robbed of the knowledge” of others. That void has been filled with (often unfounded) supposition. We each have much to teach and learn from our community peers.

A lack of public education with regards to colonization and the related history of Canada has led to a state of intense institutionalised racism which has led to low educational outcomes for Indigenous Canadian youth. Aboriginal students are wrongly presumed to be “less teachable” and encouraged to pursue “skills-based” college certificates rather than university degrees, when they finish high school. Internalised racism is to blame for many of the tragedies which befall the younger members of the Aboriginal community.

The racism faced by Aboriginal and newcomer students in public institutions is much more than what is apparent on the face of it. It is deep-rooted in topics of study, teaching styles, and personal biases that are acted upon (consciously or otherwise) and, especially, in the evaluative methods employed. Standardised testing is not a measure of anything real or valid.

An assets-based approach means helping people to recognise and develop existing strengths and skills. People sometimes have difficulty determining, naming and giving value to the various transferable skill sets that arise from experiential (as opposed to structured or formal) living and education. This is true for the individual as well as for the institutions that, repeatedly, evaluate her for categorisation or placement within. We need to put an end to the diminishment of the gifts and contributions of each member of any given group.



Small Group Discussions: JUSTICE

                ** FACILITATOR’S NOTE: The field of justice and legal systems is especially conflicted in Winnipeg because the city is so racialised. It is sometimes referred to as “the largest reserve in Canada” and the incarceration rate for Aboriginal people is disproportionately high in Manitoba. Our intention was to identify opportunities for and barriers to establishing a social enterprise in a given justice/legal context. For a number of reasons, a much broader historical and philosophical discussion around justice dominated. Ultimately, the need for this discussion affected the conference in at least three ways:

  • the discussion did not “funnel” but remained very broad,
  • discussion was intense, even emotional, and reflected the presence of two dominant cultures in the group (at times other cultural perspectives were interjected), and
  • this intensity exhausted the group on the second day so that we by-passed the task of goal identification and, instead, proceeded directly to project identification.


The first point this group wished to have acknowledged was that they do not perceive any “justice system” at work in contemporary Canada; participants agreed that what we have is a “punitive legal system” and preferred to call it that. Social justice needs to be part of the equation if we are to move toward something that can, honestly, be called a “Justice System”. Without healing and a return to feelings of safety, how can anyone say that “justice has been served”?

Historically, Indigenous values around justice are more restorative in nature and deed. The use of “healing circles” and the inclusion of community and extended family are in keeping with the values of the co-operative as seen by participants. As a society, we need to look at alternatives to purely punitive pursuits. Many agreed that Indigenous practises, such as the “sentencing circle” put a necessary emphasis on recognising crime as a community problem. This means that all are responsible for criminal acts and for repairing the damage that they cause.

Recent legislature lends more freedom to incarcerate for longer periods of time. Incarceration, as a means of addressing all levels and degrees of crime, has led to overcrowding and underfunding of these institutions. Violence is becoming more and more prevalent. When prisoners spend endless months or years, often separated from family and community, simply waiting without developing skills or planning for a more productive future, the result is, understandably, anger and hopelessness. We must think of ways to use this time more productively; offenders need a “stepping stone” to re-enter the community.

Women, in particular, have lost so much when they enter the penal system. A lack of federal beds for women mean they are, usually, far from home and family. In many cases their children are apprehended by the province and placed in foster care. Their already limited earning ability is further impaired, possibly forever. Programs or opportunities offered must certainly address these and any other self-identified needs. We need to “transcend mere training models” and address the day to day human needs of these women and their families.

On a federal level, much of the funding to “fight crime” is focussed on the expansion and creation of prisons. This is a decidedly American model which, further pursued, could likely lead to privatization and corporate assumption of this role. The fear is that this will mean an end to programming entirely, for those incarcerated as profit becomes the main motivation for being in the “justice business”. The alternative raised is to find other means of funding programs inside of prison walls. Community involvement and voluntarism must play a major role. Mentoring, guidance and support would come, often, from peers.

Many see overcrowded prisons as a place of “training for future crimes”. Relapse is an expected stage in most forms of recovery but increased community support could, conceivably, reduce serial recidivism. The human being is being lost within the system, according to participants in this conference. A move away from traditional “funding models” would lessen the burden to measure and report statistical results. Success could be seen in the changed perceptions of marginalised members of society and those committing illegal acts.


Small Group Discussions: CO-OP/SOCIAL ENTERPRISE

                Some shining examples of thriving co-op and social enterprise model businesses (for example, BUILD, Front Step Research, Diversity Foods) exist in Winnipeg today but there is not enough support for this approach. Many feel this may simply be due to a lack of understanding of how these business models work. Potential participants could, hopefully, be shown the benefits of turning entrepreneurism into socially constructive projects. This could be achieved through the use of ‘role-modelling’ existing businesses which are succeeding within this framework. This should be easily achieved, considering that, in the case of the social enterprise, the “triple bottom-line” means benefitting the community at large, as well as the owner-employees.

Most attendees agreed that an important first step would be to identify the strengths and skills of the target group. This would naturally lead to ideas for the type of business (consumer goods, services, etc.) that should be the start-up. This should be a “bottom-up” or assets-based process in which the women themselves would take a leadership role. Identifying what is most important to those served by the co-op, as in the case of Neechi Foods, would go a long way in identifying a “market niche”.  Some possibilities defined were childcare, natural teas, herbs, medicines and cleaning or other light labour services. The important thing is to have the participants choose and to ensure that the skills are transferable.

Both currently incarcerated and recently released women should be invited to participate. The women would have the opportunity to learn about co-op and social enterprise business practises, hone skills or learn relevant new ones and discover how to make these things work for them. During this time, peers and community mentors would provide ongoing support during a difficult transition.

If women with similar life experiences share in the ownership of the business that employs them, many common barriers are eliminated. Childcare, for instance, could be part of the “pay-package” offered to members of the co-op. The challenges of the employee become the concerns of management. This offers women the chance to take control (sovereignty) over their own destinies and those of their families. The possibilities are endless.

The beauty of this model is that there is a low need for initial financial investment. Conference participants agreed that we should look to other sources (besides government) for support of community based, community enriching initiatives. If a co-op or social enterprise starts small and re-invests profits judiciously, the need for capital investment is minimal. With a good plan, strong leadership, diversity of membership (input, ideas) and the necessary supports, a small investment could change lives.


                A previously unidentified theme of this conference is that of Aboriginal culture. The Indigenous community is widely affected by the current state of the “legal system” in Manitoba. They are an over-represented and growing presence in our penal institutions and a degree of cultural consideration is long overdue. Traditional Aboriginal values regarding justice are more holistic and restorative than the currently observed punitive model. Whole communities create crime and are responsible for addressing the results of that crime.

“Nobody likes to talk about corrections” because of the pain and expense associated with criminal activity. We can view this as a “window of opportunity”; we can introduce a new approach to healing and recovering from the effects of crime caused by poverty, racism, addictions and the other lingering scars of colonization. In order to address these issues without causing more trauma, women need to be allowed to make reparations within their own communities, near their families and in a way that creates a brighter future for all involved.

Recognising “multiple literacies” is empowering. It gives strength and motivation as the basis for an “assets-based, bottom-up” approach to changing lives. When people are encouraged to find their own best qualities and build on them until they become profitable, leaders are born — mentors to more marginalized individuals. When the emphasis on measurable results is lifted, similarly, people are encouraged to explore and flourish.

The way to remove the pressure of having to qualify and measure results is to decentralize… Take government out of the equation and allow the employees to be the owners/managers of their own business. This also means smaller start-up costs, more room for creative problem-solving and consideration for the specific needs of those running the business. This could, conceivably, eliminate many traditional barriers to success.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the participants in this conference agreed that “if it isn’t transformative, then it isn’t worth doing”. Lives are destroyed by time spent counting the days in poorly run federal and provincial prisons.  Why not use this time to plan for the future? Why not empower women with the tools to leave prison and become, immediately, employed or employable? Help them to recognise those transferable skills that they already possess, and to develop those skills into marketable assets. It’s a gift that they will share, undoubtedly, with their children and other members of their communities



Dr. Anne Hoyt: Professor and Department Chair, School of Human Ecology,

University of Wisconsin Madison

Dr. Simone Weil Davis,  Coordinator of Inside-Out Canada

University of Toronto







The President’s Office, University of Winnipeg

The Dean’s Office, University of Winnipeg





University of Winnipeg – Room 2M70 – 2nd Floor Manitoba Hall

 “Creating social enterprise for women transitioning from prison”

Hosted by Judy Harris and Jaque McLeod Rogers, in partnership with Virginia Hunter and Larry Morrissette.


Thursday December 6:


Welcome and Introduction

12:30pm: Co-op Lunch – Blessing:  Elder Chickadee Richards

1:00pm: Welcome and Conference Goals with Larry Morrissette

1:10pm Commemorating Day of Remembrance: Fiona Green

1: 15pm “University of Winnipeg’s Engagement with Community” with President Lloyd Axworthy

1:35pm: “I’m outta here WITH a job: Improving reentry for women offenders” with Dr. Ann Hoyt


2:20pm: Session I (Large Group)

“Changes in the World leading to Likely and Desirable Futures”

Question: What has been happening in the world in the past 5-7 years that strikes you as relevant to our theme “starting up enterprise for women transitioning from prison?”

3:30pm: President’s Coffee Break


3:45pm: Session II (Small Group)

Question: What is the significance of these changes for the next 4 or 5 years  for probable and desired futures?

4:30pm: Report (large group)

Question: What emerged today from our discussions and how would we express our shared human ideals for social enerprise for women transitioning from prison?


Friday Dec. 7


8:30am:  light breakfast and opening Dean Glenn MoulaisoN

9:00am: Session III (Large Group)

“Sharing Histories and Current Situations: Literacy, Justice & Social Enterprise”

rooting our discussion in our historical experience restores the kind of oral culture that allows people to celebrate and take pleasure in their common past (rehm and cebula, 1995, adapted from emery)

Question: How did we get here and what are our choices about what to keep, what to drop and what to create?

10:15am: Dean’s Coffee Break


10:30 am: Session IV (Small Group)

“Identifying Desirable Future Goals”

Question: What does our desired future look like in 2 years?

12:00pm: Co-op Lunch

12:45pm: “The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program: extending community, transforming education” with Dr. Simone Weil Davis

1:45pm: Community Engagement Coffee Break


2:00pm: Session V  (Small Task Group)

“Action Planning for Social Enterprise for women transitioning from Prison”

Question: How can we develop our goals into strategies and action plans?

3:15pm: FrontStep Coffee Break


3:30pm: Session VI (Large Group): “Wrap-up” Question: What is the product of our work as a community planning group and who will do what and when?