Need for Indigenous programming in Canadian prisons

Dr. Ivan Zinger says education is lacking, outdated in correctional facilities — but what does that mean for cultural teachings?

Canada’s correctional investigator’s office is launching a series of in-depth investigations looking at Indigenous programming in Canada’s prisons — specifically around access to culture and community support.

“We want to hear from Indigenous inmates to learn from their experiences,” Dr. Ivan Zinger writes in his 2019-2020 annual report.

“We intend to look at program participation criteria and compare results and outcomes for those who are enrolled in Indigenous-specific interventions.”

An earlier investigation from Zinger revealed that the number of Indigenous inmates in Canadian prisons has reached historic highs, surpassing 30 per cent in recent years and on a trajectory to keep growing.

Dr. Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada. Photo by Mark Blackburn 

Culture in corrections

In B.C.’s Fraser Valley, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) operates an Indigenous-focused minimum security institution — one of four “healing lodges” that exist across the country.

At Kwìkwèxwelhp in Harrison Mills, about 50 inmates work with Elders, tend to a healing garden, and have access to a longhouse.

Boyd Peters Xoyet-thet of the neighbouring Sts’ailes Nation was involved in the transition when Kwìkwèxwelhp was turned into a healing lodge in 2001. 

“Here in Sts’ailes, we have the benefit of having the cultural history and teachings and knowing how much the land is healing for us,” says Peters, who is also a director with the BC First Nations Justice Council.

“In our culture, we know that we need to take care of ourselves in a good way, in a balanced way, so we take care of the physical, the mental, the spiritual and the emotional. The mental is the education part.”

Sts’ailes Nation signed a memorandum of understanding with CSC around Kwìkwèxwelhp, which means “a place to gather medicine.” It was previously called Elbow Lake Institution.

Inmates — referred to as Kwikw te Alex (meaning “Elbow Lake brothers”) — are given opportunities to upgrade their education on a high school, university or vocational level.

One program through Kwantlen Polytechnic University called ‘Inside-Out’ involves pairing up to 13 Kwikw te Alex with the same number of criminology students.

Another initiative involves inmates being part of archeological work at Sts’ailes ancient village sites — a skill they can take to their home communities after being released. 

“We have the guys come down and they clear out the sites for us and they make it really beautiful,” Peters says.

“So you can see how beneficial that is and it gives them the incentive to further their education.”

Learning while behind bars

Though Kwìkwèxwelhp offers several educational programs, current statistics show that more needs to be done on a national level.

Aside from addressing the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in prisons, the current offerings of education in most institutions is falling short, Zinger says.

In fact, three-quarters of federally sentenced individuals have some need for education or employment, according to Zinger’s 2019-2020 annual report.

“The need for learning opportunities behind bars is considerable,” he writes.

“A high percentage of inmates have had negative experiences in formal educational systems; many have dropped out, and most have had difficulty finding legitimate employment or have never held a steady job.”

Zinger has asked Canada’s public safety minister to form an independent working group to implement current and past recommendations on education and job training.

His office has been asking for improvements in this area for at least a decade, saying inmates’ access to information and technology is “backwards and obsolete,” often still reliant on technology from the early 2000s.

Though CSC statistics say that 68 per cent of inmates upgraded their education and 60.8 per cent completed vocational training before release in 2018-2019 — Zinger says that might not mean much.

“These indicators do not necessarily mean that they earned a high school diploma or hours toward an apprenticeship,” he writes.

“It may only indicate the completion of a single education course or credit or the completion of a vocational program.”

Vocational programs include short courses such as Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), the Basics of Fall Protection, Work Safely with Power Tools, Food Safety or Occupational Health and Safety.

Further, less than three per cent of CSC’s overall budget — $64 million — is allocated towards learning.

“For a population with such need, these financial resources appear insufficient,” Zinger’s report says.

The road ahead

According to CSC, their Indigenous Continuum of Care model, soon to be under review, is Elder-driven and based on the teachings of the Medicine Wheel spoken about by Peters — caring for the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental.

Despite the many cracks in the system, Peters says involving Elders as teachers can make a difference for Indigenous inmates.

His mother is an Elder at Kwìkwèxwelhp, and worked with a man who was looking to be transferred to the healing lodge from another institution.

“He had strong mental health issues because he was in segregation for years so he had no trust in people and he had huge anxiety,” he explains.

“The Elders helped him to see the sacredness of the things that we have. So he went to the water, he went to the longhouse, he talked to the Elders and he learned that he has gifts that he never did utilize.” 

Today, that man is a professional seamstress, Peters says. 

“He can make anything out of cloth, just these beautiful things,” he says. 

“That’s what can happen when some of the guys get to learn some of the teachings and they open themselves up and they learn to trust. That’s what the medicines of the land will do.”

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