Calgary Herald
A female offender

Toronto Program Helps Female Indigenous Ex-Inmates Heal and Regain Their Pride

Martha Troian

Paul McKenzie, director of investigations at the Office of the Correctional Investigator, an ombudsman for federally sentenced prisoners, noted the preponderance of indigenous former inmates trying to survive in an urban setting in the agency’s report, “Spirit Matters,” which released in 2013.

“What we found is that 70 percent of aboriginal released offenders do not return to a First Nation community but often go to an urban setting,” said McKenzie. “One of our recommendations was to start looking at urban communities.”

Currently there are four healing lodges managed by First Nation community organizations and four CSC lodges. There is only one section 81 urban healing lodge for indigenous women, the Buffalo Sage Wellness House located in Edmonton, managed by the Native Counselling Services of Alberta.

Allen Benson, CEO for the agency, said it took the organization one year to get Buffalo Sage up and running.

"It was a real effort to make it happen," said Benson. “There is definitely a need for healing lodges, especially for women."

McKenzie agreed.

“Whatever programs the government looks at or wants to look at in terms of supporting or addressing their needs I think are important and worthy of study and consideration,” McKenzie said.

In the Spirit Matters report the OCI asserted that CSC is failing to meet its legislative obligations provide options for indigenous women leaving prison. According to the report, only 68 beds were available for 35,000 inmates. No beds are available in British Columbia, Ontario, Atlantic or in the North. There has also been no further work on new legislatively mandated facilities since 2001, despite the growing number of indigenous offenders.

When they do exist, indigenous-controlled lodges face underfunding and salary and benefit disparities compared to CSC lodges. Patti Pettigrew is determined, despite the challenges.

Working together, the Doctor's Lions Club of Toronto and TASSC are spearheading several fund-raising events to hire a project manager to begin the research process. It is their goal to apply for a Lion's Club matching grant of $75,000 for 2014. The team has an Indigogo campaign, and a benefit concert is also in the works.

“There'll be people who just don't agree with the whole concept,” said Pettigrew. “But it has to happen.”


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