Brenda Butterworth Carr is going national.
For 23 years, the single mother of three has worked for the RCMP. And worked hard.
“Work,” she says laughing. “That’s what I love to do.”
That tenacity and perseverance has taken her to a seat as chief superintendant and head of national aboriginal policing services in Ottawa from her traditional territory in the Yukon.
“I am very passionate about what I do,” she says. “Certainly, in terms of my heritage, my ancestry, it is integrated into who I am as a person.”
From Ottawa, she will oversee the policing of all First Nation communities in Canada.
Her ancestry and understanding of aboriginal traditions will help, said Butterworth Carr, a member of the Trondek Hwech’in First Nation.
In Canada, the tattered relationship between aboriginal people and the police is well known.
Having a First Nation woman in such a high-profile RCMP position is a step in the right direction, says Trondek Hwech’in First Nation Chief Eddie Taylor.
“As long as Brenda is aware of a situation, and the situation is not right, she will do her best to deal with it in a proper manner,” says Taylor. “That’s what I know of Brenda.”
The First Nation is proud of her and wishes her well, he says, adding she is a role model for all Yukon aboriginal people.
In the last 30 years, or so, she worked in Whitehorse, Carmacks and her hometown Dawson City before moving to British Columbia in 2002.
In BC, she ran the aboriginal policing services for all 200 of the province’s First Nation communities – which make up one-third of all aboriginal communities across the country.
She was also detachment commander for Prince George, her longest and most rewarding role, she says, noting it was difficult to leave.
But the job put her at the forefront of many of the most significant issues for aboriginal people and the law, like missing and murdered aboriginal women and alternative treatment facilities.
In Prince George, she also worked closely with communities and organizations that strive to better the lives of aboriginal people in the legal system.
And she knows the relationship between her employer and her people is not good.
Can she make a difference?
“It shows potential for change,” says Cindy Chaisson, an outreach worker for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Yukon.
But the optimism is qualified.
“I really feel sorry for her,” says Chaisson. “I think she’s got a long road ahead of her.
“I really hope that she can make a difference. I think she’s up to it – by all means, don’t get me wrong. But you can only go against a wall so many times.”
It doesn’t matter how many aboriginal people you put in a uniform, says Chaisson, noting Raymond Silverfox died in the custody of RCMP officers, two of whom were aboriginal, one male and one female.
It’s an issue of trust, she says.
“It’s going to take time.”
And in that time, as one Yukon First Nation woman moves up in the world, the number going behind bars in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre is only increasing, according to the Yukon Department of Justice.
The most recent statistics, from 2008, show the number of female inmates has almost doubled since 2003, and 85 per cent of them are aboriginal.
Currently, that number is 100 per cent, says Chaisson who visits the female inmates on a regular basis.
A new women’s facility at the jail, referred to as the annex, was opened last year and promised a full package of programming, along with home-style living.
But because their population is still much smaller than the men, female inmates in Whitehorse are not getting the programming they are asking for, or need, says Chaisson.
“It’s tough,” she says. “They’re marginalized.”
The women constantly ask for domestic violence and healthy relationships programming, but it hasn’t been offered, says Chaisson.
Also, when released they are given nothing but what they entered with, and many have no support – no one to turn to and nowhere to go, she says.
This led Chaisson and the society to start the backpack program.
The donations-based program gives female inmates a starter pack of little things that will help them get by for the first few days after they are released.
A Tim Hortons and Superstore gift certificate, a calling card, contact cards for clinics, organizations and the food bank, hygienic items, mitts and socks make up most of the package.
“There is a recognition of the problems, like the fact that there’s not as much programming for women, that’s very obvious,” says Andrea Bailey, board president of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Yukon.
“We’re developing some programming and the jail’s been really interested in working with us.”
Working together is the only way to really make change, says Butterworth Carr.
“When you get down to the grassroots of it and you form good, healthy partnerships with the First Nation communities or leaders, then you can move ahead and it’s about creating a good environment based on trust, based upon the same principles you would have as a friendship or a close relationship with someone and working towards that,” she says.
She’s got work to do, too.
“It’s about educating people within the RCMP as a whole. It’s about working in various capacities so that you can create influence and effect positive change, versus standing outside and banging your head against a government.”
It is a lesson she learned from elders in the Yukon.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at