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Correctional investigator to review Indigenous programs in prisons


January 25, 2021
By Canadian Press

This year, Canada’s correctional investigator announced his 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.

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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.”

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.