In 1989, working in the prison system wasn't a popular career choice for women, and the women who took that path faced a number of challenges. So if you worked in correctional services, like Rae-Ann Lajeunesse (Correctional Services, ’91), it meant you had a calling.
At the time, Rae-Ann — who is now the assistant deputy minister of the Child Intervention Division of Alberta Children’s Services — couldn’t put her finger on why she was driven to work with vulnerable, struggling people. She just knew it was the right direction for her.
That year, when she started in the Correctional Services program at MacEwan, there was a fair amount of women in the program, but that changed when she entered the workforce. “When I first started my career at the old Edmonton Remand Centre, there were definitely far fewer women in the building than men,” she recalls.
Although when she first started the program, she thought she was more interested in working in probation or parole, but decided that she wanted one of her field placements in the program to be with a jail. “I thought if I’m going to deal with people who are coming out of jail, I should probably have a functional understanding of what the environment is like when they were in it.”
Although Rae-Ann thought a field placement in a jail was just to gain some understanding to help her in other roles, it turned out that she really enjoyed that work and her first job in corrections was as a correctional officer at the Edmonton Remand Centre.
One thing she “knew for certain at 20 years old” was that she didn’t ever want to work with young offenders.
“Your attitude will take you places. And the rest you can learn along the way if you’re willing.”
Never say never
Working with young offenders meant having to deal with their families and the many others involved in young people’s lives, and that was not something Rae-Ann thought she would ever be interested in. She was drawn to working with adults who she felt could be held more accountable for their actions, and not with young people who weren’t old enough to make their own decisions. And for a while, her career focused on working mainly with adult offenders before she eventually moved into corporate positions within the (then) Ministry of Solicitor General and Public Security, before returning to the field — as the director of the EdmontonYoung Offender Centre.
“I was surrounded by people who had built their entire careers on helping kids, and they showed me that it just wasn’t what I had thought it was,” she says. Everything that she had originally thought would be a barrier to getting things done was actually about finding ways to support kids and their families. “You want to see them on a better path, and that was just really inspiring to me. It was less about making them comply with an order and much more about helping them have a better life.”
Better lives for children and families
When she later moved into the executive director role of the Maintenance Enforcement program within Alberta Justice and Solicitor General (JSG), it became clear to Rae-Ann that, like being called into correctional services, she was innately drawn to work that was focused on helping vulnerable people and that meant there were many other roles and opportunities to pursue that kind of meaningful work. And though she felt a fair bit of separation anxiety — first when she left corrections and later when she left JSG — she knew she wanted to continue to challenge herself.
“When I thought about taking on this role in Children’s Services, I thought about its scope and volume but also impact on families — because there’s nothing more emotional than taking children away from families,” says Rae-Ann. “And unfortunately many people believe that is all that we do, but it’s not.”
She says it’s about making families stronger and working with them to keep them together, so children don’t have to be taken into care. Most people don’t understand how much of a culture shift it has been for staff who started in child intervention decades ago, and what a difference it means to help families be healthy and strong, she adds.
Your attitude will take you places
Even as Rae-Ann moved up the ranks, she taught for 10 years as a part-time distance instructor in the Correctional Services program, and she says that people even today continue to ask her about her experience and the challenges for women pursuing careers in correctional services or taking on higher-ranking positions.
“When I look back, I have a lot of female role models that either by choice or by happenstance are people who I look up to, and their advice was always about not being held back by this or that, like ‘that’s not a job for women.’ People say that women can do anything and I 100 per cent believe we can, but we still don’t do a good enough job of paving the way for women to feel empowered about taking on these roles.”
She adds, “It’s a lot about your attitude — it will take you places. And the rest you can learn along the way if you’re willing.”