Commissioner Don Head has accomplished a great deal during his time at the Correctional Service of Canada.
Starting as a correctional officer at William Head in 1978, he would eventually work in several different CSC institutions. After stints with the Yukon Justice Department and Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Corrections and Public Safety beginning in 1995, he returned to CSC as senior deputy commissioner in 2002. He was appointed as commissioner in 2008.
Over that span, he earned numerous commendations and awards, including the Governor General’s Corrections Exemplary Service Medal and Bar and the Public Service Award of Excellence for Diversity and Employment Equity.
But ask him what he’s most proud of during his time leading the organization, and he’ll talk about just about everyone but himself.
For Commissioner Head, it is, it always has been, about the people he works with.
“I think the biggest thing, to be honest, is not necessarily something I’ve done or accomplished, but I’m proud of all the staff in the organization,” Commissioner Head said in his final interview with Let’s Talk ahead of his retirement Feb. 3.
“Each and every day, over 18,000 people will come to work - doesn’t matter whether they’re in the institutions or the parole districts or community correctional centres or staff college or regional headquarters, national headquarters – over 18,000 people come to work to do the best job they can to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
When he accepted the top job at CSC, he made the decision to approach the role as that of a facilitator.
“I think anybody who sits in the commissioner’s chair that thinks they’re going to define some marvelous new way to do corrections is probably a little misguided,” Commissioner Head said. “The job of the commissioner is to set the stage so that people can do the best job that they can, so that they can feel successful, so that they can feel valued.”
Does he feel he accomplished that?
“I think I laid some more pavement on the road forward,” he replied. “It would be foolish for me to say that I paved the way for everybody to do that, because there’s always going to be growth, there’s always going to be different side roads and off-ramps that the organization may have to go, and somebody else is going to have to pave that way.
“But I think I laid a chunk of asphalt down that people were able to move along, a path along their personal journey and their professional journey.”
Not that the road work was always easy. In an organization that is as big and has as many stakeholders as CSC does, it’s a constant balancing act to meet the needs of staff, offenders, victims, communities and government.
“One of the biggest challenges is trying to, on a daily basis, find that balance,” Commissioner Head explained. “And trying to balance it in such a way that everybody is able to find something that will allow them to move forward, whether that be the offenders, the staff, victims. It’s a huge, huge challenge finding that balance.”
Commissioner Head was known for going the extra mile to try and understand those needs and challenges on a personal level. As much as possible, he made a point of getting into institutions and communities where, as he put it, “the rubber meets the road.”
That meant taking shifts with correctional officers, shadowing parole officers, and working with nurses in the healthcare unit.
“I did those things primarily because I think it’s important for whoever sits in the chair of the commissioner to remember that corrections doesn’t occur at (National Headquarters),” he said.
“That’s not to take away from regional headquarters or national headquarters – they have a very significant role in supporting those operations,” he added. “But staying in touch with the staff, engaging them, giving them an opportunity to talk directly to the person that ultimately signs the commissioner’s directives that influence how they do their work each and every day, hearing about how things work, how they don’t work, what can be done better, what’s working well from their perspective … staying connected is what it was all about for me.”
The commissioner has seen a lot of changes at CSC over his 40 years, some initiated by him.
He was responsible for the CSC Transformation Team that was established in the spring of 2008, as well as the Aboriginal Initiatives Directorate, the Incident Investigation Branch, the Information Management Services Branch, the Performance Assurance Sector, and the Management Structures and Deployment Standards initiative.
But the biggest overall change, he said, is that people now see corrections as a profession.
“What I mean by that is that there’s more focus on ensuring that there are professional standards for the way various activities are done, whether that be the way we do case management to deliver programs, the way correctional officers perform their duties, the way health care delivers physical and mental health services,” he said. “The professionalization of corrections has probably been the biggest change I’ve seen over the 40 years.”
He also acknowledged there are other complex areas that remain works in progress.
“I’ve gone back and read some of the early Let’s Talk articles from when I started, and even documents that pre-date my career, when it was still the Canadian Penitentiary Service,” he reflected. “I see documents from the 1960s and the early 1970s that talk about the need to look at the issues around administrative segregation, the issues around mental health, the issues around women in corrections, and it’s interesting to go back and look to see how that wheel seems to spin about every four, five, six years.
“We seem to revisit those same key issues and, each time, we’ve progressed and moved further, but they obviously continue to be extremely important issues today.”
The reality is that, just as it takes time to get an ocean liner pointed in the right direction, an organization with over 18,000 employees can’t always turn on a dime.
“An elder once said to me, no matter when you look at anything, particularly if you’re trying to tackle a certain issue or a problem that’s developed, just remember that ‘it took eight miles to go into the bush, it takes eight miles to get out of the bush,’” Commissioner Head said.
Now, it’ll be up to a new commissioner to keep the organization moving down the right path, to put down some more pavement.
Asked what advice he’d give to his successor, Commissioner Head listed four points that, really, could apply to anyone working at CSC.
“The first is, as I mentioned, stay connected to the business. Real corrections occurs in the institutions, in the parole districts, in the community correctional centres. That’s where the offenders are, that’s where corrections occurs, so remember that.
“The second thing would be to always remember to take care of those that we have legal responsibility for, to make sure that the correctional service is doing the best it can to support offenders, to help them to re-integrate back into the community in a safe way.
“The third thing I would say is to make sure that you’re always thinking about the staff and how best to take care of them, because if they’re not in a healthy space physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, they’re not going to be able to do the job that they need to do.
“The last piece of advice I’d give to whoever sits in the commissioner’s chair is also to take time to take care of yourself. You can live and die by a Blackberry and briefing notes and you can be tied to the business 24/7, but you definitely need to find time to step away and to take care of yourself as well.”
Congratulations on an exceptional career, Commissioner Head, and enjoy retirement!