One of the visionaries behind the very first healing lodge in Canada says Correctional Service Canada completely dismantled what the lodge once was, and Sharon McIvor is now concerned about safety inside.
In 1989, McIvor, then with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was asked to be an Indigenous voice on the task force that redesigned women’s prisons in Canada. The group published the report “Creating Choices,” which led to five new prisons for women across the country, including Okimaw Ohci, the first healing lodge, which opened in Saskatchewan in 1995.
McIvor remembers one of the first meetings at the now-shuttered Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont., the only facility for federally-incarcerated women in the country at the time.
Inmates were holding a powwow, and McIvor watched their self-led drumming, dancing and what’s known as a grand entry.
“They start coming in and I started to cry. I realized that these women knew what they needed to try to get themselves out of what they were, but they didn’t know how to do it,” McIvor remembers.
She began working on advocacy and programming and bringing in elders for Indigenous prisoners.
McIvor worked with a small group called a planning circle to launch the country’s first healing lodge in Saskatchewan. It was important it be set up in the prairies, she said, where the majority of offenders were coming from.
WATCH: What a healing lodge is and why child murderer McClintic served time there
Once the location was selected, they moved their meetings to Maple Creek, Sask., the nearest community to Okimaw Ohci, and launched the circle that included elders, members of Correctional Service Canada, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, people from the Nekaneet reserve and non-Indigenous people from Maple Creek.
The first priority at the new lodge, she says, was safety.
“The biggest thing that I saw was that they’re never ever safe,” McIvor said. “Because of the prison or penitentiary culture, you always had to watch your back. And you have a culture in there where you’ve got someone in charge … how you become the big dog is that you abuse everybody else, so you always have to watch your back.”
By being in charge, McIvor said, she doesn’t just mean a hierarchy among staff, but among inmates.
“That was the first principal in our healing lodge, is that what we needed was a place where they could be safe because until you’re safe and you’re not always surviving, you cannot change.”
After that, it was about getting in touch with the Indigenous worldview.
“It’s not so much about culture, because culture, you think, ‘Okay, culture is, let’s go have a sweat lodge, or let’s go to the powwow.’ Our worldview is so much bigger than that,” McIvor said.
She says the system worked in the early days, with low recidivism rates, but the lodge in its current form is unrecognizable.
McIvor left Okimaw Ohci in 2005, unhappy with major changes made by Correctional Service Canada which took over operations at the lodge. But she still speaks with elders and others currently at the site.
“They discontinued what we put in place, so it’s just a regular penitentiary right now. It’s not a healing lodge.”
Some of McIvor’s biggest concerns were over the addition of male staff and male elders — especially when the vast majority of Indigenous female offenders have a history of sexual assault and trauma.
“I left when we could not prevent a corrections officer who applied…to work at the healing lodge and used his union seniority to become a staff member,” she said.
“I couldn’t stop them. I had no influence anymore. As you know, I do a whole lot of activist work.”
McIvor, a member of the Lower Nicola Indian band and a lawyer, has a long history of activism and advocacy. In a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, she fought the government over discrimination in the Indian Act.
Her work for Indigenous women was recognized with a Governor General’s award. For the last two decades, she has taught and designed courses at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, the only public Indigenous post-secondary institution in British Columbia.
But as the CSC changed the system in 2005, she remembers her fight against the organization as “futile.”
In the early days, the term “guard” was never used, either. Instead, the Cree words for aunty, older sister or mother stood in its place. She also laments the loss of a daycare, a space which is now, she understands, used for offices.
And while there is still no traditional barbed wire fence or cells at healing lodges, she remembers the system of coloured cloths tied in trees to mark the perimeter in the isolated setting in the woods. She remembers one inmate who would walk to the edge and stick her foot out and bring it back repeatedly, but says there were no escape attempts.
One concern that has been echoed by others in the Indigenous community — including the nearby Nekaneet First Nation — is that CSC, not a panel of elders as it had been, now controls who enters the facility.
“Taking the elders out of the equation just really, really undermines everything,” said McIvor.
WATCH: Indigenous advocates question why non-Indigenous offenders are serving in healing lodges
Global News reached out to Correctional Service Canada for a response to McIvor’s concerns that healing lodges are much different places now.
CSC spokesperson Julia Scott responded with a paragraph about how healing lodges operate today, but no direct response to any of McIvor’s concerns was offered, except to say elders “provide input” on transfers.
Documents obtained by Global News show that on average since 2011, 15 per cent of inmates at healing lodges were not Indigenous.
McIvor said whether to admit non-Indigenous women to their small healing lodge with 30 beds was a hot topic of discussion during the planning stages.
“At the end of the day we did not preclude non-First Nations women,” she said. “It’s against our worldview. Our elders said, ‘You can’t do that, we don’t do that.'”
But between 1995 and 2005, when she left, she says she remembers maybe one non-Indigenous woman inside.
“It just brings a new, another dynamic in,” McIvor said, saying she has concerns about the 15 per cent.
She says the facility in its current form, with all the CSC changes, is not safe — which was a huge part of the initial impetus for the separate facility.
“In order to be safe, you need to know that you’re not going to get assaulted, you’re not going to be pressured to do things, basically you don’t have to take care of yourself as long. As long as you’re in survival mode, you’re not going to do anything,” McIvor said.
WATCH: Government policy should address access to healing lodges for convicts of serious crimes: Scheer
While they’ve existed for decades, many Canadians only learned about healing lodges since the outrage over child killer Terri-Lynne McClintic’s placement at Okimaw Ohci. She has since been transferred to a traditional prison, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has promised changes to how female inmate transfer decisions are made.
McIvor, though, says she hasn’t thought a lot about McClintic’s case, because she doesn’t know enough about her particular situation.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, but if you’ve got a place just where you’re housing people and giving them a few cultural lessons and you’ve got your guards back occupying a sacred space we put together for our babies, and you’ve got them acting like guards as opposed to people that are responsible and are really interested in the women…. Who am I to say that this woman shouldn’t go there?”