When Doris Fortin started as a correctional officer in 1984, women offenders had the same correctional programs as the men.
“Program officers were told to change the ‘he’ to ‘she’ and ‘him’ to ‘her’,” said Marlene Wells, retired national trainer, colleague and friend. “Doris was responsible for changing that and ensuring that correctional programs were developed and designed specifically to meet the needs of women offenders.”
Doris was a passionate and strong advocate for women offenders. She recognized that although some basic elements of correctional programming apply to both men and women offenders, women are different. They need a different approach to rehabilitation.
Women offenders often face inter-related challenges that need to be addressed to help them rehabilitate. These include low self-esteem, trauma, little education, moving around in foster care, homelessness, working in the sex trade, suicide attempts, self-injury, and substance abuse. Doris believed the social and cultural circumstances that affect women offenders have to be considered to help them rehabilitate.
She felt women had to be treated as whole individuals. Their reintegration programs needed to offer positive social choices to help them become law-abiding citizens. In addition, the programs emphasize the importance that women place on the relationships in their lives. Building healthy relationships is key to their healthy lifestyle. This has proved to be significant in helping women’s rehabilitation.
“Doris did so much pioneering work,” said Jennine Hamilton, senior project officer and national trainer in the Women Offender Sector. “She advanced how we work with women offenders, applying a different lens in their treatment. As women, we approach the world differently.”
Doris, who was manager of Interventions and Policy in the Women Offender Sector, passed away from cancer in March 2013. She began her career as a correctional officer at La Macaza Institution in Quebec in February 1984. She worked in different institutions for 15 years, as a unit manager, case management officer, and programs coordinator. She then moved to National Headquarters, in Ottawa, to become the national trainer for the high intensity Violence Prevention Programs.
Doris was committed to improving correctional programs and social programs for women, and followed a career path to make that happen.
In January 2001, Doris became the manager of women offender programs in the Reintegration Programs Division. Doris made a commitment that would develop and deliver gender-specific programs to women that were based on recommendations from Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women (1990). The changes she helped implement were monumental. She collaborated with the Addictions Research Centre to develop the Women Offender Substance Abuse Program, which began in 2003. It was the first correctional program designed specifically for women offenders.
In 2004, Doris developed the Correctional Program Strategy for Women Offenders, which laid out Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) direction for the reintegration of women offenders.
“She was so dedicated, really believed in that program strategy,” said Stephanie Chalifoux-Taylor, Regional Administrator of Indigenous Initiatives in the Pacific Region, who worked with Doris since 2005. “She backed her thinking with all different types of theories related to women, such as Feminist Therapy theory.”
Stephanie with Doris, 2008
To Stephanie, Doris was a mentor, coach, manager, and friend. She noted that Doris was working towards a Master’s in Sociology, specializing in Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa when she passed away.
Doris put women’s theories into practice. She established the Women’s Modular Intervention Program for the women living in secure units who had limited access to correctional programs.
She also developed the Women’s Sex Offender Program. These programs are an important part of women’s rehabilitation strategy. In 2008, the Women’s Violence Prevention Program was introduced, which she co-authored with Kelly Blanchette, former director general of the Women Offender Sector. She mentored her staff in the development of the two correctional program streams that are currently delivered to women offenders today: the mainstream Women Offender Correctional Programs and the Indigenous Women Offender Correctional Programs.
Doris had great respect for, and embraced, Indigenous culture. She oversaw the implementation of programs designed to address the culturally specific needs of Indigenous women offenders. In 2009, she was honoured for that work at a ceremony in Ottawa by the members of the National Committee for Programs for Indigenous Women and Indigenous program facilitators. Doris received meangingful gifts of a star blanket, an eagle feather, and beaded moccasins.
“Doris knew how to work effectively with Indigenous peoples, communities, and organizations. She was already ahead of her time in terms of reconciliation. She understood engagement meant learning about one another and listening in order to first build a relationship,” said Stephanie. “Doris understood the value of lived Indigenous experience, and took the time to draw that out so as to guide Indigenous women’s corrections.”
In 2011, Doris received the Correctional Exceptional Service Award for her contributions to women offenders’ rehabilitation and reintegration.
Doris received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for her contributions to improving federal correctional services for women offenders. She is sitting front row, beside the Commissioner, with other CSC recipients.
She was a visionary who fully embraced life and gave 110% to everything she did. This included her relationships with colleagues and peers. She worked to empower staff, ensuring they had the skills and knowledge to be effective in their jobs.
“She was always so very inspirational. She made you feel important and valued. Anything you had to contribute was useful and woven into program and policy,” said Jennine.
Doris also organized dinners and fun gatherings after meetings and conferences, so employees could get to know each other. She wanted staff to be real people at work and in leisure.
Jennine said, “Doris’ impact on the work we do has been significant. If we didn’t have all of those things she pushed for, we’d still be in a position of simply changing ‘he’ to ‘she.’ She has given women a voice at the table, not only for offenders, but staff members too.”
Doris was widely respected by colleagues as a trail blazer who went above and beyond in advancing women’s corrections.
The plaque on the wall entering the Doris Fortin Programs Wing.
At a ceremony in June 2022, a plaque was unveiled in the wing at Nova Institution where correctional program officers provide, and offenders receive interventions, built on Doris’ vision. The Doris Fortin Programs Wing was named in honour of Doris’ contributions and the wide-reaching impact she had, and continues to have, on women offenders of all cultural groups.
Stephanie summed it up when she said Doris’ legacy,
“lives on in so many offenders and staff—past, present and future—directly and indirectly.”