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BY Djamila Amellal, Communications Officer, Communications and Citizen Engagement
Photos: Bill Rankin
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) provides a continuum of culturally appropriate interventions that address the specific needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders in a way that contributes to safe and healthy communities. In particular, over the last decade, CSC has created eight healing lodges across Canada. Let’s Talk writers recently visited one of them, the Pê Sâkâstêw Healing Lodge in Alberta, where staff and offenders spoke of the benefits of the holistic approach and the rehabilitation programs, in particular the In Search of Your Warrior Program (ISYW).
We head south, leaving behind the office towers of prosperous Edmonton. After an hour’s travelling down the highway we pass through the peaceful town of Wetaskiwin and beyond that, stretching out to the horizon, is Hobbema, home of the Samson Cree First Nation. It is one of Canada’s wealthiest reserves, thanks to its vast oil and gas production. Green and flat as far as the eye can see, this land is traditionally shared by four bands including the Samson Cree Band. A few kilometres further on we see giant structures standing against the horizon, their bright colours contrasting sharply with the blue sky. It is here, on the land of the Samson Cree First Nation in 1997, CSC built the Pê Sâkâstêw Healing Lodge for Aboriginal male offenders.
“The program was made possible thanks to the efforts of the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, working closely with the elders and people in charge of CSC programs in 1999,” said Dan Erickson, former Director of the Pê Sâkâstêw Healing Lodge.
“For Aboriginal offenders who have lost their culture, their language and their spirituality—the essence of their life—this program is vital. Through Aboriginal values incorporated into the program, offenders learn all over again about their own culture, go back to their spiritual roots and, after their conditional release, live with a better self-image.” He adds: “The program’s name comes from the Aboriginal vision of the warrior. We speak of a spiritual warrior who fights for justice and strengthens values and ethics in the community.”
Offenders living at the lodge—there are currently 46—generally arrive from medium-security Drumheller Institution. In preparation for conditional release and successful reintegration into the community, parole officers often recommend the ISYW for men with a history of violence or anger management problems. However, for this particular group, the choice was personal.
“ISYW was created to treat traumatic experiences, to heal the scars of abuse, to get rid of the blinding rage and anger that inmates carry deep inside,” says Sharon Bell, Program Director and former ISYW facilitator. “Some of them, for example, are suffering from the effect that residential schools have had on their lives or on their parents’— residential schools established by the Canadian government that in the past aimed to assimilate Aboriginal people into white society. The scars from abuse and the loss of identity can have a terrible impact on a human being. That is why some of them strongly feel the need to refocus on themselves, to get back in touch with their real selves, to be able to face the future with hope.”
The ISYW consists of various activities— 75 in total—accompanied by spiritual cleansing ceremonies. The program’s expert facilitators choose activities according to the offenders’ individual needs. This, in turn, determines the course length, generally from six to ten weeks.
“What I really do is follow the group and their needs,” said Patricia Tessier, ISYW facilitator. “Each morning we meet and form a circle. I let them run with their thoughts and feelings and keep them focused throughout the meeting. Within the circle we are all teachers. When participants understand what the others talk about, they begin to learn. ISYW is very intense. Offenders talk about things that are very personal and painful, things they have never before dared reveal to anyone else. The lodge’s Elder is always involved in the activities. It is an opportunity for him to teach.”
The day often begins with a spiritual ceremony in a peaceful meeting room, in dim light. Patricia Tessier and inmates burn sweet grass, each of them running their arms through the smoke and wafting it over their heads. Then, in turn, each participant holds the eagle feather (symbolizing respect for the truth) and without inhibition gives free rein to thoughts, feelings and hopes. Tessier quietly listens to them open up about their suffering. She also respects their silence if they choose not to speak.
Elder Ken Saddleback, sitting among them, speaks about the past, the present and the future, conveying wise messages and teaching many aspects of Native culture. After everyone has had their chance to speak, they leave the room and go about their daily tasks. “
Pê Sâkâstêw means a new beginning,” says Elder Saddleback. “For the offenders, it means reaching the clarity in spirit that will help them find themselves. My role is to remind them of their identity, to make them aware that they have a culture they can be proud of, a heritage. I teach them the protocol of our culture, for example, how to approach elders when asking for a favour. To an elder we offer tobacco because tobacco is what the Creator appreciates. I also teach them the concept of the tepee. And I tell them personal stories which prompt them to open up.”
Elder Ken Saddleback says that by taking part in such activities as sweats, offenders manage to throw off their heavy burden, get rid of their pain. “They come out free of fear and anxiety; they find themselves. It’s like they purge the evil, the anger living inside them.” “A six-week program doesn’t heal participants right away, but they return to the community with the tools to survive,” says Patricia Tessier. “They find the program effective because they are now able to understand why things happened to them, they have options and they can make changes; that’s the strength they draw from it.” Very proud of the program, she adds: “The ISYW is an efficient tool because it can be adapted to individual needs. It’ll remain efficient as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that offenders’ needs can vary from one group to another. Standardizing it would be a mistake.”
According to former Director Dan Erickson, the correctional system wins many points by putting in place such programs. “It costs a little bit more, but it’s really worthwhile,” he says. “We teach these offenders to be models in the communities where they will live. We are convinced that those who have participated in the program have benefited a lot. It touches them deeply, at a personal level. Participants tell us that it changes the way they see themselves as persons and, if that’s the case, it has changed the way they will live for the rest of their lives.” ♦