Image Caption: Heather stands in front of a mural painted by an Inuit artist and former resident of Parrtown Community Correctional Centre. The mural represents how understanding inside the walls can assist offenders on their path toward the beauty of life in the community.
If Heather Finn would have only one tip to give staff working with ethnocultural offenders, it would be to listen.
“It’s listening. It truly is,” said Heather, the 2020–2021 recipient of the Emerson Douyon Multiculturalism Award. “We are not going to understand the experiences of others unless we listen to them. As a White woman, I don’t have the lived experience of some of the people I work with. I have to listen—that is the only way I can understand.”
Heather, the Acting Regional Administrator of Assessment and Interventions in Moncton, New Brunswick, has spent her entire career on the frontline in institutions in the Atlantic Region, as well as in community parole offices in Newfoundland and New Brunswick.
Her ability to listen and understand has made her a strong advocate and supporter of Black offenders, and a champion of initiatives geared to their successful reintegration for over 15 years.
“This award is such a good recognition of everything she has done. She is driven by her passion to help people from marginalized groups, particularly Black offenders,” said Ed Muise, Member of the Parole Board of Canada. “She just worked so hard to bring focus to this group and the need to better understand them.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2004, Heather first worked in youth corrections before working with inmates in programs with the John Howard Society, and then at the Correctional Service of Canada.
“As a social worker, you’re looking at vulnerable people in the population. Social work gives you the lens to look beyond individual deficits, and to look at the systems that don’t serve them well. In corrections, you’re working with the most vulnerable populations in Canada. That was the source of my inspiration,” she said.
Heather’s thesis for her 2017 Master’s of Social Work degree focussed on the overrepresentation of African-Canadian offenders in the Atlantic Region. She saw the topic as a major issue that should be more widely known. She met an ally in Community Parole Officer, Jude Clyke.
“Heather had a keen interest in supporting and advocating for marginalized groups. We think alike in wanting to create meaningful interventions that can lead to positive outcomes. We both understood the region wasn’t doing enough,” said Jude.
Heather, Jude, and Ed (then the Warden of Dorchester Penitentiary), established the Committee for Black Offender Reintegration, a working group to address the disparity of African-Canadian offenders in the Atlantic Region. They designed workshops and training for parole officers.
In 2017, Heather provided an information session on the overrepresentation of Black offenders to parole officers at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. The session included the history of African-Canadians in Nova Scotia; anti-racism work; and, what parole officers could do to facilitate reintegration.
Positive feedback from the workshop inspired the creation of a one-day Parole Officer Continuous Development (POCD) training for all Atlantic Region parole officers in 2018, facilitated by Jude. The course was further expanded the following year to include subject matter expert, Robert Wright. This time, the POCD training was co-facilitated by Heather and Robert and delivered to parole officers and members of the Parole Board of Canada in 2019 and 2020. It was designed to engage parole officers in meaningful discussion to provide them an understanding of Black offenders, so they could incorporate culturally relevant information into their assessments and decision-making.
The course had a phenomenal 97 percent parole officer completion rate.
“We were able to engage in a conversation that was not confrontational, where there was a positive learning opportunity, where there was a space people could freely ask questions, and become a little more culturally aware,” said Jude.
Heather talked about how rewarding her job has been.
“It’s such a dynamic work environment,” Heather said. “You truly make a difference, and you make an impact whether it be globally in the systems in which we work or in an individual’s life. I’ve had the privilege of seeing huge life changes right before my eyes.”
Heather has also made a difference in inmates’ lives in the Caribbean. She participated in a successful initiative between CSC and the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services. She delivered Parole Officer Induction Training to 20 participants in an effort to equip the Department with a working parole system for this part of the world. During the pandemic, Heather worked with the Saint Lucia Department of Probation and Parole, which resulted in two offenders being granted parole in the country’s first ever parole hearings.
Exciting initiatives for Black offenders continue in the Atlantic Region. Heather acknowledges that engagement with community partners is key to enhancing service delivery; however, regional initiatives also need the support of senior managers. Under the leadership of Regional Deputy Commissioner Jay Pyke, the region is currently fulfilling several external contracts that address the needs of Black offenders regarding mental health, education, and parole supervision. The Atlantic Region has also developed a new community position of African Canadian Reintegration Officer, which will assist with reintegration of Black offenders back to their home communities.
“With support of these important initiatives, there appears to be a rejuvenation of hope and trust amongst staff, offenders and community partners who have advocated for these types of services for decades.” said Heather. Along with many senior managers, Heather also sits on the Regional Ethnocultural Reintegration Committee, the Regional Indigenous Reintegration Committee, and is a member of the Ethnocultural Employment Equity Committee.
Both Jude and Ed agreed that the Emerson Douyon Multiculturalism Award is a wider recognition of Heather’s passion and unwavering commitment to Black offenders, and the importance of closing the gap in the disparity between Black and non-Black offenders.
What does the award mean to Heather?
“On one hand, I struggled with being awarded for engaging in this work because it is work that we should all be doing; we should all be working towards building a more equitable system in corrections, because it is the right thing to do,” Heather said. “However, I feel honoured for the recognition and hope that it can raise awareness and inspire people to get involved. This work is not only extremely important for our clients in corrections, but it has introduced experiences and people that have been positively life changing for me.”
You can read more about Heather’s experience as part of CSC and the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services here: