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Aboriginal Elders in Federal Penitentiaries

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Significant advancements have been made during the last three decades in relation to the human rights of Aboriginal offenders. This is especially important considering the very high number of Aboriginal peoples incarcerated in Canada. Although constituting less than 5% of the overall Canadian population, Aboriginal men account for approximately 15% of federal inmates while 22% of federally-sentenced women are Aboriginal.

The fundamental right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Offenders of Christian faith have, since the beginning of the penitentiary system, had freedom of religious practice with access to and support from priests and chaplains. It is only more recently, and after some struggle, that Aboriginal offenders won the right to practice traditional Native spirituality behind prison walls. The first time an Elder entered a federal prison to conduct a ceremony was in 1972 in Alberta's Drumheller Institution. This practice has expanded across the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and has been supported by federal correctional policy since 1987.

The right to access traditional Native spirituality is about more than "religion" - it encompasses learning about one's culture and healing. With the assistance of Elders, some Aboriginal offenders are able to participate in traditional ceremonies, receive individual counselling and gain a sense of self-identity, self-respect and community. Arguably, access to traditional Native spirituality also holds more prospects for change and growth for some Aboriginal offenders than any other institutional program.

In 1992, with the enactment of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, (CCRA) the right of Aboriginal offenders to have access to traditional spirituality was entrenched in law. As per Section 83 of the Act, Native Elders are now accorded the same status as other religious leaders and various spiritual and cultural practices are permitted to enhance the personal development of Aboriginal offenders. Moreover, Section 80 of the CCRA provides that the CSC shall provide programs designed particularly to address the needs of Aboriginal offenders while Section 81 enables the Solicitor General to enter into bilateral agreements with Aboriginal communities for the care and custody of Aboriginal offenders. The first agreement under this latter provision was with the Prince Albert Grand Council of Chiefs in Saskatchewan to accommodate five Aboriginal offenders at their facility.

Also of significant importance is the establishment of two Healing Lodges for Aboriginal offenders. Following recommendations of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women (1989), the CSC and representatives from Aboriginal Bands worked closely together and officially opened the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge for women on August 24, 1995. Situated on Nekaneet land near Maple Creek Saskatchewan, this facility is unique in Canada for its emphasis on traditional Aboriginal spirituality and healing. In 1997, the CSC also opened the first federal prison for male Aboriginal offenders. Pe Sakastwe, meaning "new beginning" in Cree, is located on land donated by the Samson Cree Nation at Hobbema, south of Edmonton. Elders at the Lodge integrate traditional values into the centre's programming encouraging self-sufficiency, responsible behaviour, healing and wellness.

The last three decades have brought other significant developments concerning Aboriginal offenders. During the early 1970s, Aboriginal offenders began organizing Native Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods. These organizations continue today to provide spiritual and cultural support and a sense of community. The Service's policies now stipulate that the institutional authorities must accommodate Aboriginal support systems so that offenders may pursue cultural and spiritual interests. In the early 1970s, a National Advisory Committee was established and incorporated in policy in 1987 and in law under Section 82 of the CCRA in 1992. The Native Liaison Support System also was initiated in the 1970s and is the antecedent to the Native Liaison Workers who now facilitate communication between offenders and staff and provide support to visiting Elders. A number of programs and services designed to specifically meet the needs of Aboriginal offenders have also been implemented, including Native Alcohol and Drug Counselling Programs, Native Halfway Houses and cultural awareness and sensitivity training for staff.