Positive Space Behind Bars
Although it is often intimidating to walk into any new place as a queer person it was especially nerve wracking walking up to the Penitentiary. This is a place that many might think is filled with some of the most dangerous people in the province and I was going there to participate in a diversity training workshop.
When I first heard that Correctional Service Canada (CSC) had a Positive Space training program, I must admit–I was quite surprised. Considering that few organizations have any sort of diversity training in place, I was honestly excited to hear that one with such a “tough” reputation did have one. I was lucky enough to be one of the first Saskatchewan community members, not employed by the CSC, to sit in on this Positive Space training which, believe it or not, has been running since 2014.
The Positive Space Initiative (PSI) is part of Correctional Service Canada’s commitment to “building and maintaining a diverse workforce and to ensuring a respectful environment for everyone.” The PSI is a 3-hour training workshop available to all interested employees designed to educate employees on Gender and Sexual Diversity, giving them the tools to become “Positive Space Champions”. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I entered that session and I am very pleased to say that I was blown away by both the material and the trainer.
The workshop is based in open discussion among those attending, encouraging conversation through sharing stories, concerns and questions. Over the 3 hours, the course touches on the realities of being LGBTQ2I in the world and in Canada, general terminology used in the community and how to provide support. The program, and the trainer, do a great job of noting when ideas raised are problematic or if mistakes are made, showing that its ok to not know everything and to normalize these often stigmatized topics.
Upon the completion of the training, employees are given lapel pins for their uniforms and display cards for their work spaces to show others that they are a safe person to speak with about gender & sexual diversity. It appears as though the management level and non uniformed staff are more likely to take the course which is not of much surprise. I believe it takes an additional strength to openly show yourself as a “Positive Space Champion” or to even take this kind of ‘additional’ training in the correctional environment but I do hope to see more officers taking this program in the future.
I feel honored to have met the small group of training participants who were so genuinely interested in learning about gender and sexual diversity as well at the trainers who volunteer their time to ensure this program continues. In a time when media and advocacy groups have been focusing on transgender rights within correctional facilities, I feel it’s especially important to recognize the existence of this program. Although medical transition coverage and pronoun usage in corrections are still not where they need to be, it is encouraging to see CSC taking steps forward with this program.
Following our training session I was invited to go on a tour of the facility which was quite an eye opening experience. Almost all of the information we receive about prisons comes from fictional media which is created to entertain, not necessarily to educate. That said, the facility did look almost exactly like what I expected although there was a lot more open space, the yards were large with many available activities, and the amount of program and work spaces seemed to equal the living space.
You are not permitted to speak with inmates when on a tour–not a word, a nod of the head, even making eye contact was discouraged. Although I was there at a time of day which minimal inmates were visible I did see a handful. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them were Gender Diverse and what their stories were, what do they struggle with and also what they do not struggle with here.
This made me realize that we often talk about what it means to be trans in this space and although this discussion is needed, we rarely hear what it is like from someone who has lived or is living it. There are trans folks in these facilities–people who have spent years there, people who will spend their lives there and I think we need to start finding a way to get their perspective and their ideas on what are the most pressing issues and how we can help.
According to the corrections training material, “as of 2016 over 400 staff have participated in the training.” One of the things I was most impressed by is that this program does not appear to be a reactionary response–but rather proactively becoming the first of its kind to be adopted by a Federal agency in Canada. Although the number of staff completing training may seem small in relation to the total number of CSC employees, hundreds of people now have at least some basic information about Gender and Sexual Diversity and I would call that a big step in the right direction.
Dexton Bourne is the Program Coordinator for Moose Jaw Pride & the Saskatchewan Pride Network, focusing on Prince Albert, Humboldt & the Battlefords. Dexton is a proud born-and-raised Saskatchewan resident who believes the road to success is paved through diversity. They strive to raise awareness and support for the Gender & Sexually Diverse (GSD) communities of SK through education, networking and fun! Dexton has dedicated much of their time to the local GSD community through events, presentations and workshops. They are particularly passionate when it comes to their work around gender diverse education and advocacy.