Warning: This story contains distressing details.

Have healing lodges lost their way as a medicine to Indigenous over-incarceration?

It’s a question the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which represents urban and non-status Indigenous Peoples, is asking after the tragic death of Cassandra Fox, a 27-year-old inmate who died by suicide last Wednesday at the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Saskatchewan.

“The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples calls on CSC (Correctional Service Canada) to ensure the inquest of her death is conducted immediately and publicly,” CAP vice-chief Kim Beaudin said in a press release.

Correctional Service Canada has said it is reviewing the circumstances of Fox’s death, “as in all cases involving the death of an inmate.”

Healing lodges were once a phenomenal idea as a concept, Beaudin, who is a longtime prison reform advocate, said in an interview. But Beaudin says the vision has morphed into something that is just another extension of the Canadian justice system, often run by CSC.

It’s something Independent Sen. Kim Pate, another longtime prison reform advocate, discovered on her visits to Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in the 1990s. Pate first visited during the lodge’s inaugural weeks. There was a round dance and, at the time, she couldn’t honestly tell who was a prisoner, staff member or community member, Pate said in an interview.

“But within six weeks, the next visit I was there, it had already started to change.”

The overlay of correctional policy and practice had already started to reshape the culture of the healing lodge, Pate explained.

Have healing lodges become an extension of Canada's prison system that continues to disproportionately harm Indigenous communities? Critics like Kim Pate and Kim Beaudin think so; both have called for reforms to the now "Indigenized penitentiaries."

Beaudin points to a funding gap between community-run and Indigenous-led healing lodges and those managed by Correctional Service Canada, like Okimaw Ohci. Community-run lodges receive notably less funding than their CSC-run counterparts, Beaudin said.

CSC told Canada’s National Observer that funding arrangements for community-run healing lodges differ from facility to facility, but “in general, the community-run lodges bill CSC for residents based on approved rates.”

All funding provided to community-run lodges by CSC falls under Section 81 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act passed in 1992. The legislation came under scrutiny in a 2012 report called Spirit Matters, which found Correctional Service Canada “failed to meet its legislative agreements,” including that community-run lodges ran on “substantially lower budgets.”

“We can confirm that CSC is currently assessing options and potential sources of funds to support the creation of additional Section 81 agreements,” the CSC statement added.

Kim Beaudin, the vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and a prisoner advocate, told Canada's National Observer that healing lodges have strayed from their original vision. Photo courtesy of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples

The healing lodge was designed as a way to decolonize the justice system in order to provide Indigenous programming, spiritual circles and ceremonies, according to Correctional Service Canada. The hope was to lower the incarceration rate of Indigenous Peoples, who are overrepresented in Canada’s prisons.

Today, Indigenous women represent over 50 per cent of the incarcerated population while only making up five per cent of the total population, according to a report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

The concept changed because more non-Indigenous people took the lead in management, administration and other decision-making roles at the healing lodges, Beaudin said.

“Then it started to morph into something more like a facility,” he said.

Pate points to the same problem, citing healing lodges moving away from a decolonized model and into what she calls an “Indigenized penitentiary.”

“There may be some Indigenous staff, there may be some Indigenous programming, but it’s not driven by an Indigenous worldview, per se,” she explained.

“They’re driven by correctional policies and practices.”

Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge staff is composed of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. However, the most senior leader of the lodge is non-Indigenous, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge told Canada’s National Observer.

Indigenous offenders entering lodges often have suffered historical traumas arising from colonialism and residential schools, Beaudin said.

But it’s true that they also endure the trauma of incarceration from what Pate calls the “legal system” rather than the justice system.

Independent Sen. Kim Pate, a longtime prison advocate, argues that healing lodges have become Indigenized penitentiaries. Photo courtesy of Kim Pate

The correctional investigator found Indigenous offenders represent 39 per cent of use-of-force incidents and nearly 50 per cent of people in structured intervention units, which are similar to solitary confinement but with less oversight, Pate said. The report also notes more than 50 per cent of self-harm incidents in prisons involve Indigenous offenders.

Both Beaudin and Pate are calling for reforms that return to the original vision of community-run, Indigenous-led healing lodges.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Beaudin said.

If you are struggling with your mental health or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca, or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566 or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. First Nations people, Métis and Inuit can also reach out to Hope for Wellness at 1-855-242-3310 or the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-800-265-3333.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative