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Kim Pate, centre, stands with senators Lillian Eva Dyck and Peter Harder before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate on Nov. 15 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

For 35 years, Kim Pate has been the country's most prominent advocate for the hundreds of women locked away in Canada's prisons.

It is a numbing world that tests the souls of all who touch it, filled with extremes of bureaucratic apathy and human barbarity.

So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Ms. Pate to the Senate in October, she could have been excused for embracing it as a departure from all that – a retirement from decades of fighting on behalf of women such as Ashley Smith and hundreds of others whom the justice system has silenced and segregated.

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But as her graphic maiden speech in the Red Chamber made clear, Ms. Pate is not the retreating type. Rather, she intends to use her new platform to promote the principles she has been upholding for decades while also testing the boundaries of the Senate's newly granted independence.

"For the past 35 years, I have often found myself driven either by rage or despair as I've tried to address that which I could not and will never accept, that which I observed all around me, the suffering that I've had to witness first-hand," her speech began.

By the time she was done making a powerful argument for justice reform by telling her fellow senators what really happens behind prison walls – describing a woman who tried to gouge her own eyes out, another inmate who endured 20 shock treatments and a third who has spent most of 30 years in "torturous isolation" – the entire chamber had risen in applause.

It was classic Pate – fearless, independent and tough to debate.

Even she wasn't sure how those attributes would play in the Red Chamber, so tainted as it has become by years of patronage and partisanship. "If it was independence in name only, then I wouldn't be interested," she said. "But I did some research. The independence is what eventually attracted me."

Growing up with a father in the air force, Ms. Pate's own independence developed early as the family moved from Quebec to England to British Columbia to Germany and back to B.C. again without setting down deep roots. The military upbringing also taught her how to deal with the ego and arrogance that can sometimes come with rank.

"It was great training for working within the prison system, which is incredibly hierarchical and paramilitary," she said.

She did her bachelor of arts at the University of Victoria and finished a law degree at Dalhousie in 1984. It was while working at the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service that she started going to jails and realizing the degree of inequity within Canada's criminal-justice system.

"I started realizing that, okay, we have mostly poor and racialized people in the system," she said. "Call me slow, but eventually I realized the whole system was not particularly fair. … As I started to look around at who got bail, who got charged, who got taken home – if you had resources and opportunities, you were far more likely to be diverted out of the system."

From there, her direction was set. Rather than practise law, she would work within the justice system. She went to Alberta to work for the John Howard Society, the main non-profit that works with and advocates on behalf of men in the correctional system. She worked on literacy programs alongside Howard Sapers, who was then executive director of the society's Calgary chapter and would later become the federal prisons ombudsman.

"Kim was and remains passionate about her work," he said. "She was not hard to spot in terms of her enthusiasm."

From there, in 1992, she moved to Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a counterpart to John Howard that works on issues affecting women and girls in the justice system, and named for a famed social activist who sought to spread the word about depraved conditions in a London prison.

Soon after taking the helm, Ms. Pate found herself in a similar position. In 1994, she was one of the first people permitted to enter the Kingston Prison for Women after a violent altercation between six inmates and officers. The correctional union alleged that inmates had rioted and tried to murder an officer. Ms. Pate wanted to see for herself and brought her three-year-old son along, negating arguments about the prison's dangers.

"I had no one to take care of him," she said. "And I took him and negotiated for a woman who was still serving a life sentence to be unlocked – because they were all still on lockdown – to take care of him. There was this image of the Prison for Women as dangerous. My son's label for them was 'the Mommies.'"

Talking to women at the prison, she learned the truth about the supposed riot: The women lashed out after enduring mace and months in segregation, and after the clash, they'd been brutalized by staff. She tried to spread the word, but most outsiders didn't believe the accounts she relayed from inmates until 1996, when a landmark inquiry into the Prison for Women events by future Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

"During that time when Prison for Women was open and I was trying to get information exposed, I learned that Corrections believed they could control all information," she said. "I remember telling the warden that I'd seen women who were still in shackles. They said, 'No woman is in shackles.' I remember stopping dead and realizing they simply thought nobody would ever believe me."

The Arbour report accused Correctional Service officers of using "extreme force and terror" in their treatment of the six inmates, who had been stripped naked, shackled, prodded with batons and repeatedly searched after the skirmish. Just as damning, she found that the Correctional Service operated with little accountability or transparency and sought to whitewash the entire incident.

In the course of the report, Ms. Arbour called Ms. Pate's work at the Prison for Women "nothing short of remarkable."

Over the years, many other actors in the correctional field have expressed similar marvel at her energy. "When visiting institutions, I was often quite surprised that, no matter where I went, Kim was either there or someone would tell me that she had just been there," Mr. Sapers said.

The Kingston fallout boosted the credibility of Ms. Pate and Elizabeth Fry such that when Ashley Smith, a New Brunswick teen who died in a segregation cell while Correctional Service Canada staff watched in 2007, there was little questioning Ms. Pate's assertions that Ms. Smith was treated inhumanely.

"Kim has a great ability to put down the facts," said Colleen Dell, a past executive director of the Winnipeg chapter of the Elizabeth Fry Society and now a sociology and public-health professor at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in addictions and mental health. "She's a lawyer. She doesn't make arguments in a personal way. Her emotions never overcome her judgment. She's well respected throughout the system."

Dr. Dell says she's always been struck by the reserves of compassion Ms. Pate maintains for all who cross her path. During prison visits, "she provides hope and friendship and community."

Last year, when an inmate Dr. Dell had worked with named Terry Baker died at Grand Valley Institution, Ms. Pate called to offer her sympathies before the death made the news. "It meant so much," Dr. Dell said. "It's a special person who thinks to do that."

Dr. Dell says she was "thrilled beyond thrilled" when she learned of Ms. Pate's Senate appointment and not at all concerned that the new position would force her to water down her principles.

"You can't force Kim to toe a party line," she said. "No one could. I think it adds great legitimacy to the Senate, actually."

That first speech suggests she's right. In the Senate, Ms. Pate plans to push a position that isn't on any party radar: decarceration.

"As I've gone in and out of prisons more and more, I've found there are very few people who pose a significant risk to public safety," she said. "If we could empty out our prisons and instead invest those resources in communities, we'd be far better off."

While her new colleagues might be slow in warming to the idea of decarceration, Ms. Pate's history of independence and persuasion should not be underestimated.

"It's very hard to argue with Kim because she has so much first-hand experience," Mr. Sapers said. "She takes strong and challenging positions. There have been times I've disagreed with her – and most of the time, I eventually discover I was wrong."

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