Work with incarcerated women garners Governor General’s Award

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, presents the Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case to Ruth Elwood Martin.  Credit: MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall, OSGG

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, presents the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case to Ruth Elwood Martin. Credit: MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall, OSGG

Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin, clinical faculty member in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, is the recipient of one of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

These awards were created in 1979 to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Persons Case, which changed the course of history for women in Canada. In 1929, after two years of legal debate, Canada’s highest court of appeal declared that the word “person” included both women and men. This decision, made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, allowed women to serve in the Senate. It also paved the way for women’s increased participation in public and political life. The case had been brought before the courts in 1927 by five Alberta women who became known as the “Famous Five.”

Each year, five recipients are chosen from across Canada, in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the goal of equality for women and girls in Canada. Dr. Martin will receive this award in recognition of her public health work with incarcerated women in Canada.

Dr. Martin is a family physician who began working in British Columbia’s provincial correctional centres in 1994. In 2000 she initiated a cervical cancer screening pilot inside prison, and later assisted with the HPV primary screening study in BC, “HPV-FOCAL.” In 2005, she became the Inaugural Director of the UBC Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE), a network of academic, community and prison persons interested in improving the health of individuals in custody, their families and communities. She introduced the unique concept of engaging women in prison, prison staff and academics in participatory health research (PHR) to address concerns raised by the women themselves. Over 200 women became members of the PHR team over three years, and their work included conducting 16 peer health surveys, hosting 10 health research forums, developing and presenting 46 health educational presentations, writing health advocacy letters, and presenting to the local high school.

In 2013, she was co-principal investigator for the “Bonding Through Bars” project, which examined the topic of children born to incarcerated parents, and was an expert witness in the BC Supreme Court case, which ruled that the decision to cancel a provincial correctional facility mother-child unit infringed the constitutional rights of mothers and babies. In March 2014, Dr. Martin and CCPHE developed best practice evidence-based Guidelines for the Implementation of Mother-Child Units in Canadian Correctional Facilities. The guidelines greatly influenced the implementation of the BC provincial correctional Mother-Child Unit, which officially opened in July 2014. In January, 2016, the Guidelines were mailed to every Member of Parliament in Ottawa, to MLAs in all provinces and territories, and to every correctional facility in Canada that houses women. The Guidelines can be downloaded in English and French.

“I am honoured and humbled to be chosen for this award, and I would like to acknowledge the work of people across Canada who have been working tirelessly to support the best interests of incarcerated women and their children. Our work is predicated on the clear and compelling evidence that early mother-infant bonding supports positive future outcomes for the child, and that the child has a right to non-discrimination. It is in the best interests of infants to remain with their mothers, to have the opportunity to breastfeed when possible, and to be allowed to develop healthy attachments.”

Dr. Martin was presented with the Award medal by the Governor General, during a formal reception held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on April 21 2016.