The name Brenda Matheson may ring a bell: she made headlines when she was convicted of stealing money from both the IWK and a physiotherapy clinic in Halifax. She was employed at both places when the crimes took place.
Since then, Matheson has gone to counselling, dealt with demons from her past, and found a fresh start in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. But she would much rather be here in Halifax.
“I was looking for a job in Halifax, that’s where I’ve been my whole life,” she says. “I grew up there and my kids are there.” But she couldn’t find a job because of her criminal record.
Matheson says she regrets what happened in the past because of the people she hurt. But she doesn’t regret that her mistakes led to her getting the help she had needed for a long time.
“The third lawyer I had sent me for a psych evaluation,” she says.
The doctor quickly diagnosed her with PTSD from incidents in her youth including a sexual assault, which led to a pregnancy and a baby that she gave up for adoption. Her parents told her to never discuss the situation, even with family.
“I never dealt with any of that and then I ended up in abusive relationships,” she recalls.
At the time she first stole from the IWK, she was desperate to pull her family out of a dark place. “My husband was an alcoholic and didn’t work, went from job to job and I was doing administrative work so I never made more than $26,000,” she explains. “And he drank my paycheque. We were evicted 17 times. I just got to a point when I couldn’t do that to my kids anymore.”
Still, she acknowledges that the crimes she committed were wrong and wishes she had counselling earlier in life. She now works at a job where she also has to handle money but, at her request, there is always someone double-checking her calculations and deposits. That’s something she has learned she needs to keep her on track.
“If I’m handling money, to not be the only one doing it, to have double checks. And that’s what I could have done,” she says in reference to the previous jobs she had in Halifax.
She was upfront with the owner of the company she currently works for about her past, something she didn’t do with previous jobs because she was worried she wouldn’t have been hired. “I was constantly looking over my shoulder in Halifax,” she recalls. “I just felt I had to leave in order to have a second chance.”
It’s a feeling many people with criminal records share even if they have tried to make changes in their lives. Criminal records don’t go away after a sentence is complete. To even apply for a record suspension, one has to wait five to 10 years and spend at least $600.
“To wait five years for what’s probably a minor offence is a long time, it’s a huge amount of time. To have to wait 10 years you can imagine what’s happened to someone’s life in that period of time,” says criminal-defense lawyer Mark Knox. He works with a group called the 7th Step Society, a support group that helps ex-offenders integrate back into the community.
Knox sees firsthand the frustration that people like Matheson face when they are trying to make changes in their lives but are held back by a criminal record.
“You can’t normalize, you can’t feed your family, and in some places you can’t get housing,” he says. “It’s a huge anchor for someone who’s paid their dues.”
And the process of getting a record suspension, formerly known as a pardon, became even more lengthy and costly under the Harper Conservative government.
Under previous rules, offenders convicted of summary offences had to wait three years before applying for a pardon. New rules increased that to five years. Offenders with more serious convictions for indictable offences had to wait five years before applying and they now have to wait 10. The cost to apply also jumped from $150 to $631.
There are indications that the current federal government wants to make changes to ease the restrictions again. The feds recently completed a survey and consultations on the Criminal Records Act including record suspensions with a goal of finding out how Canadians feel about the system. And it’s something that affects many Canadians; one in 10 people have a criminal record.
Knox hopes to see Canada follow other countries that make it easier for people who have changed to have a second chance. “In the U.K., for example, they have legislation that automatically expunges records after about four years for non-violent, probably non-serious, offences,” he says. “You don’t have to pay for it, it’s automatic.”
Brenda Matheson would also like to see some of these changes in Canada, but what she believes is even more important is offering offenders the help it took her so long to get.
“At my first sentencing, the judge put in my conditions that I should have psychological counselling,” she says. “However, when I met with the conditional sentence officer, he said the courts/judges make these conditions but do not provide a way to achieve them.”
She was told if she wanted the help, she would have to get it herself but, without an income or benefits, she couldn’t do it.
“The only reason I got psychological help was because for the second offence, I went to Coverdale and the social worker there counselled me,” she notes in an email.
Coverdale is an organization that provides supports and services for women involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
Matheson credits the changes she’s made to the workers there, the lawyer who finally requested a psychiatric evaluation, the 7th Step Society, and the doctor who she says went above and beyond to help her. However, she knows she was lucky that all of those things fell into place and that it doesn’t happen for everyone.
“Coverdale and 7th Step need to be used by judges, probation officers, conditional sentences officers etc… They need to get the offenders there,” she says.
And for anyone out there second-guessing hiring or interviewing someone because they have a criminal record, she has some advice: “If people have done the work to change, give them a second chance.”
Brenda Matheson and her son at his high-school graduation in 201