Backgrounder – Aboriginal Healing Lodges

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In the past five years, the Correctional Service of Canada has introduced a new way of delivering corrections for Aboriginal offenders serving a federal sentence.

Healing Lodges reflect the physical space and programs of the Aboriginal culture. The needs of the offenders under federal sentence are addressed through Aboriginal teachings, ceremonies, contact with Elders and children and interaction with nature. Program delivery is premised on individualized plans, a holistic approach, an interactive relationship with the community and a focus on release preparation. The Healing Lodges operate from a unique perspective, placing a high value on spiritual leadership as well as role modeling through life experiences of staff.

These Lodges are responding to the dramatic over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in corrections in Canada. While forming only 2.5% of the general Canadian population, Aboriginal offenders make up 17.8% of federal penitentiary inmates, this is a doubling of the Aboriginal offender population since 1987. In Saskatchewan, for example, Aboriginal peoples are incarcerated at a rate of 35 times higher than the mainstream population. Estimates forecast that these numbers are growing. The Healing Lodges are also responding to the need that has been voiced by the Aboriginal community that the mainstream programs that are available in prisons are not working for Aboriginal offenders, as every program indication will substantiate.

In 1990, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women recommended that one of the five new regional federal facilities for women should be a Healing Lodge for Aboriginal women. The Healing Lodge concept was proposed by an Aboriginal women's group who advised the Service on this option. The result was the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge (which means "Thunder Hills" in Cree), a 29-bed facility located on 160 acres of the Nekaneet First Nation, outside Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. It was opened for residents in November, 1995.

Soon, planning was underway for the first Aboriginal facility for male minimum-security inmates. The P Skstw Centre (pronounced Bat Say-ga-stay-o) meaning "New Beginnings" opened August of 1997. It is located near Hobbema, Alberta on the Samson Cree First Nation, just south of Edmonton. It is a 60-bed, federally-owned Centre housing 40 inmates and 20 day parolees. The Centre was designed by architects in consultation with the values and suggestions of Samson Cree Elders and symbolizes the Aboriginal world view.

In 1994, CSC began discussions with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and the Prince Albert Grand Council (P.A.G.C.) for the shared accommodation of a 30-bed Healing Lodge facility on the Wahpeton First Nation, for Aboriginal offenders. The P.A.G.C. built the facility and it also opened in 1997. The Lodge operates under 2 agreements, one with the province of Saskatchewan for 25 beds and one with CSC for 5 beds.

The concept of the "Healing Lodge" has even gone into existing federal institutions. In 1999, the Spiritual Lodge at Stony Mountain Institution in Winnipeg, Manitoba was opened. In this particular institution, the majority of the offenders are Aboriginal and it soon became apparent as these numbers grew, that specific programming and designs were required to address the needs of the Aboriginal population. The Lodge does not house inmates, but provides a central location for Aboriginal programming, spiritual circles and ceremonies as well as office space for the Elders who lead the programs.

Conversions of existing federal institutions are also underway. The previous Elbow Lake minimum institution located near the Chehalis First Nation in British Columbia is now Elbow Lake Healing Village. Operational plans are in place to re-design the institution to reflect the Aboriginal culture. Consultations with nearby Aboriginal groups for staffing and programming are also underway. Now, in British Columbia the concept of the Healing Lodge has already unfolded positive results.

The CSC has operated the Stan Daniels Centre, through an agreement with the Native Counselling Services (NCSA) for several years. However, in 1999, an agreement was signed by the NCSA and the Solicitor General to transfer the operations under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to the Aboriginal Community. The operation has now become the Stan Daniels Healing Centre and ensures that the traditional Aboriginal healing methods and teachings of the Elders become the core of the programs.

The "Healing Lodge" approach has also found its way into the Halfway Houses that CSC supports, including what is now called the "Waseskun Healing Centre" located in the foothills of the Laurentian mountain range, approximately an hour from Montreal. Waseskun Healing Centre has services in French and English and provides intensive residential therapy for men and women referred from Aboriginal communities and from prisons and federal penitentiaries. The Waskeskun Centre has operated for the past ten years, however, in 1999 it officially became a "Waseskun Healing Lodge".

In February of this year, CSC will begin transferring federal Aboriginal offenders to the O-Chi-Chak-O-Sipi First Nation, near Daughin, Manitoba. This 24-bed facility was built and is being operated by the First Nation, under an agreement similar to Prince Albert Grand Council.

Finally, a 40-bed CSC Healing Lodge facility is being built on the Beardy's Okemasis First Nation, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, with construction expected to begin next year.

The Correctional Service of Canada recently conducted a follow-up of the 412 Aboriginal offenders admitted to the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, the P Skstw Centre and the Elbow Lake Healing Village since opening and revealed the following:

  • 286 or 69.4% have completed the program (others are still resident of the program)
  • Of those completing, 16 or 6% had been returned to federal custody for committing a new offence while on conditional release.
  • In contrast, the national federal recidivism rate was 11% in 1997-98 (for full parole and statutory release)

This means that the relatively low federal recidivism rate among Aboriginal Healing Lodge participants are an early indication of having positive impact. It also means that CSC is encountering some success in its mandate to safely and successfully reintegrate offenders.

For several years now, the Correctional Service of Canada has developed strong working relationships with Aboriginal Elders who have provided spirituality, counselling and the connection back to an Aboriginal identity for Aboriginal offenders. The focus for corrections now is to look towards the Aboriginal communities to achieve a better balance of offenders in federal institutions and in society. This way, offenders who want to continue their healing journey can find the tools and resources to work with in their own communities and with their own people. CSC is recognizing that the strength found within the Aboriginal community is the key element for the successful reintegration of Aboriginal offenders. Aboriginal communities are now starting to come forth and are indicating that they can do a better job at healing Aboriginal offenders than the mainstream prison system will.

Other correctional jurisdictions, such as provincial and territorial departments as well as other countries with similar or higher over-representations of Aboriginal people are closely monitoring these efforts and are considering similar projects.

For more information please contact:

Gina Wilson
Director General
Aboriginal Issues
Correctional Service Canada
(613) 995-5465

Dale Leclair
Director, Aboriginal Community Relations
Correctional Service Canada
(613) 992-8345