Indigenous advocates and government critics say new data showing that “White” and non-Indigenous offenders have made up 15 per cent of those in healing lodges over the past seven years does not make sense, given the lodges were designed to support Indigenous people.
One advocate argued that giving more power to Indigenous elders would help make a change.
Documents obtained by Global News under access-to-information laws revealed for the first time how offenders in healing lodges identify, showing that last year, 11 per cent of offenders in the four federally run healing lodges self-identified as “White” or non-Indigenous.
Kelly Potvin, a board member of the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society in Toronto, says letting Indigenous leaders make the call on who to accept at healing lodges would reduce the numbers of non-Indigenous offenders at these facilities. Potvin urged officials to look at the matter as a symptom of a bigger problem in the Canadian correctional system.
“I think non-Indigenous people taking up space in Indigenous healing lodges speaks to a number of different problems in our corrections system, one of them being there not being appropriate supports and services for everyone while they’re being incarcerated,” she said.
“I think when Indigenous elders make the decision about who can participate in a healing lodge, I think those statistics will change.”
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Potvin, who describes herself as having Indigenous heritage and is also the executive director of Elizabeth Fry Toronto, added that many Canadians may view healing lodges as a “get-out-of-jail-free card” but said those who come to them need to commit to a real desire to change.
Making sure Indigenous elders lead the process of determining that is crucial to ensuring that healing lodges can serve their purpose, she said.
“Healing lodges should be sacred spaces, and having anyone from any background come into a healing lodge is not respecting that sacred space.”
The data also showed two offenders with non-Canadian citizenship and three with unknown citizenship had been allowed into healing lodges as well.
“The numbers are surprising and concerning. Healing lodges were established for the purpose of dealing with the unique issues surrounding Indigenous offenders,” Conservative deputy justice critic Michael Cooper said, speaking with Global News from China, where he is part of a Canadian delegation meeting officials there.
“There may be circumstances where it may be appropriate for a non-Indigenous offender to access a healing lodge and be housed in a healing lodge, but these numbers seem quite high.”
Pierre Paul-Hus, Conservative public safety critic, also said he was concerned.
“Healing lodges are meant to benefit Indigenous peoples nearing the end of their criminal sentence,” he said. “It is clear the system is being misused by individuals who want an easier sentence.”
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Those numbers come after a wave of public outcry late last year about convicted child-killer Terri-Lynne McClintic‘s move from prison into a healing lodge.
The Liberal government came under heavy scrutiny after it was revealed that McClintic had been transferred out of prison and into the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Saskatchewan.
McClintic is serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford in 2009.
Two family members of McClintic, who spoke with Global News on condition that they not be identified, said she was making up claims of being Indigenous in order to get out of the medium-security prison facility where she was being housed.
She was transferred out of the healing lodge after Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced new rules for how Correctional Service Canada should assess applications from offenders to transfer into healing lodges.
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A spokesperson for the public safety minister said that as part of those changes, the deputy commissioner for women of Correctional Service Canada “will be required to ensure that Indigenous communities are engaged in transfer recommendations as part of an interdisciplinary approach.”
What that means and whether there will be clear criteria laid out for that engagement, however, is not clear.
That requirement would also impact transfers into the four federally run healing lodges that provided the data obtained by Global News: Kwikwexwelhp Healing Village, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, Pe Sakastew Centre and Willow Cree Healing Lodge.
The other five healing lodges across Canada are operated by Indigenous communities.
According to the data obtained by Global News, the overwhelming majority of offenders in the four federal healing lodges self-identify as what is listed as “North American Indian.”
For the 2017-18 fiscal year, that includes 111 out of a total of 147 offenders in the four healing lodges.
During that same period, 18 others identified as Metis, while none identified as Inuit.
Self-identified “White” offenders made up the next largest demographic chunk, with 13 offenders identifying as such and making up 8.8 per cent of the total.
Another five are listed as “neither.” Of those five, one offender identified as East Indian, one as multi-racial/ethnic and one as a race “other” than the 13 options provided. Two are listed on the spreadsheet provided to Global News as “not entered.”
In total, 11 per cent of those in healing lodges last year said they were not Indigenous.
The new data also shows both the number and proportion of white offenders in healing lodges is at its lowest point since 2011-12.
That year, the number of “White” offenders made up 16.7 per cent of all those in healing lodges.
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Patti Pettigrew, president of the board of directors of the Thunder Women Healing Lodge and a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, said she doesn’t understand why non-Indigenous offenders are being sent to healing lodges.
“I feel that it does take away from a bed for an Indigenous woman. I don’t understand the reasoning behind it, why Corrections Canada would send non-Indigenous women to an Indigenous women’s healing lodge, so how I view that is a real lack of knowledge on the part of Corrections Canada about Indigenous culture,” she said.
“I just see it as a lack of insight.”
But Goodale’s office said non-Indigenous offenders aren’t taking away spots from Indigenous offenders because there are vacant beds in the four healing lodges.
“While the vast majority of healing lodge inmates identify as Indigenous, some offenders who are non-Indigenous have always been allowed to be incarcerated there provided that they choose to follow Indigenous programming and spirituality,” the statement reads.
“As there are some vacancies at lodges, it would be wrong to claim that non-Indigenous offenders are denying Indigenous offenders space. That said, we are working to expand healing lodge capacity.”
In an interview on Monday, one professor who studies Indigenous justice and healing lodges said those vacancies and the proportion of non-Indigenous offenders in healing lodges raised questions about whether they have an easier time accessing facilities intended for Indigenous people.
Specifically, Vicki Chartrand from Bishop’s University in Quebec noted Indigenous offenders are routinely classified at higher baseline levels of security when they come into the correctional system.
That means they often face a longer wait and a harder time getting their security classification downgraded to the level required to access a healing facility.
“We know through these classification and rating scales that Indigenous people are being overclassified or significantly classified at higher levels of classification, maximum security … It’s these kinds of practices that are going to make it harder for Indigenous people to access a minimum-security institution like the healing lodges,” she said.
“Others might be more amenable or conducive to cascading through the system. It might just be a little bit easier for them to cascade through the system.”
Reports by the Correctional Investigator of Canada note that Indigenous offenders are classified as minimum-security at half the rate of non-Indigenous offenders.
Eighty per cent of Indigenous offenders are classed as maximum- or medium-security, whereas the same is true of 66 per cent of non-Indigenous offenders.
Goodale’s office said Correctional Service Canada is currently conducting research into concerns that security classifications may pose undue barriers to accessing healing lodges.