Lisa Neve was once labelled the most dangerous woman in Canada.
Today she’s speaking out about a justice system that nearly sent her away for life, a system with a rising number of Indigenous women behind bars, a system facing a mental-health crisis with more dangerous offenders than at any time in history.
Neve was just the second woman in the country to be declared a dangerous offender in 1994, a designation intended to be reserved for the most violent criminals and sexual offenders. At 21, she expected to spend the rest of her life in prison on an indefinite sentence.
This week, she spoke to journalists for the first time since 1999, the year her designation was overturned and she walked away from the criminal justice system.
“I’m not Canada’s most dangerous woman,” she said, clutching the hand of her partner, Michael Marcovitch, a criminal defence lawyer in Stony Plain. “I’m Lisa Neve. I’m a sister, a partner, a friend.”
Neve testified in Edmonton Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Human Rights, which is studying human rights in Canadian prisons.
“I want people to know that you can’t take away someone’s whole life and tell them that they’re unredeemable at 21 years old,” she said.
Born in Saskatchewan on Boxing Day in 1972 to a Métis mother, Neve was three months old when she was adopted by Jim and Colleen Neve.
Her early childhood was unremarkable, blending into the suburban landscape of Calgary in the late 1970s.
At age 12, Neve was caught drinking at school with four friends. When the police came, she refused to go home for fear of getting grounded, so they put her in handcuffs and took her to a children services centre, where she said she was forcibly strip searched.
Frustrated when other girls at the centre bullied her, Neve said she hit the most hostile girl over the head with a metal bowl and wound up in a court-ordered mental health treatment program.
“Nobody wanted to help me. They just wanted to control me,” she said.
3 years in custody
Neve said she started running away from care facilities and got caught up in drugs and prostitution.
The better part of her teen years were spent filing between children services’ agencies, psychiatric care and youth corrections facilities across the province. Between age 15 and 18, she was out of custody for just four months.
“I got involved in prostitution and drugs and I wanted so bad to go home, but it was too late,” she wrote in a 2005 book, co-authored with now-Senator Kim Pate, a longtime advocate for prisoners’ rights who sits on the committee.
“Maybe things would have been so much different if I was on the medication that I am on now,” she wrote.
Pate has known Neve since her time in the youth system. She said in an interview that Neve’s story highlights persistent problems in the federal prisons, where Indigenous women are the fastest growing population, increasing by 60 per cent in the past decade.
“She, as a young woman, was essentially underprotected but over-policed,” Pate said before Tuesday’s hearing.
By the time the court decided she was the most dangerous woman in Canada, Neve had been convicted 22 times. Her crimes ranged from petty theft to carrying a knife while working on the street, and taking hostages in two separate incidents while in youth custody.
Neve once testified at trial against an abusive pimp who was convicted on assault charges. The cross-examination was particularly ruthless, Neve said, when defence lawyer Sterling Sanderman — now a Court of Queen’s Bench justice — brought up her history of prostitution.
Shaken by her experience on the stand and worried she would kill herself, Neve checked into Alberta Hospital. When the doctors asked why she was there, Neve said she wanted to kill the defence lawyer and his family.
A few days later, she was charged with two counts of uttering threats. She was later convicted.
Eventually, she was designated a dangerous offender during a sentencing hearing for a robbery conviction. Psychiatrists called her a psychopath and “the female equivalent of a male lust murderer,” though she had never killed anyone.
‘Hearing that is shocking’
Her sentence, the judge told her, would expire at the time of her death