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The Case for Expanding Section 81 Indigenous Healing Lodges in Canada - Moira Kennedy


Healing Lodges were implemented by the Correction Service of Canada to address Indigenous over-representation in Canadian prisons. In 1989, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women was established, finding that Indigenous women were over-represented in federal prisons through systemic discrimination.[1] The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, along with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, suggested community-based Healing Lodges. From this assertion, the first Healing Lodge was established in 1995.[2] Section 81 of The Corrections and Conditional Release Act allows federal prisoners to be transferred to an Indigenous community to serve their sentence.[3] There are both section 81 Healing Lodges, which are ran by Indigenous communities, and Healing Lodges operated by the Correction Service of Canada. The Healing Lodges take a restorative justice approach, prioritizing healing and culturally appropriate programming. Programs are created by planning circles consisting of Elders, Indigenous communities, lobbying organizations, and corrections employees.[4]

Programming in Healing Lodges reflects the advisory groups that guide them. Some of the cultural programming offered includes healing circles, sweat lodges, pipe teachings, smudging, sun-dance, beading, drumming, and Indigenous-focused history. Indigenous women’s programming may also include parenting skills workshops and counselling regarding family violence. These programs are combined with corrections-recommended initiatives like cognitive listening skills, literacy and education, substance abuse prevention, and living without violence.[5] Although these programs are offered through corrections, they are often facilitated by Elders.

Healing Lodges have been overwhelmingly successful at reducing recidivism for Indigenous offenders. Rooted in community and restorative justice practices, these Lodges provide an alternative to the standard prison experience and better serve Indigenous offenders. To expand the success of the program and ensure more offenders can participate, the government must prioritize building new Healing Lodges and secure funding so that they can be executed properly. Not only is this beneficial for Indigenous offenders, but it also acts to lessen the amount of crime occurring after release, meaning communities are safer and the risk of recidivism is lower.

Indigenous Over-Representation in Canadian Prisons:

Indigenous peoples are over-represented in Canadian prisons. Despite being just 4.1 percent of the Canadian adult population, Indigenous peoples accounted for 27 percent of adult admissions to federal prisons in 2017. Indigenous women represent 43 percent of prisoners, and they are more likely to be harshly punished, making up 50 percent of maximum-security placements. Here in Manitoba, Indigenous adults make up 74 percent of admissions to custody.[6]These statistics represent a failure in Canada’s justice system and society in general. The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Gladue requires the court to consider “the unique systemic or background factors which have played a part in bringing the particular Aboriginal offender before the courts” and further, that the impact of colonization includes “low incomes, high unemployment, lack of opportunities and options, lack or irrelevance of education, substance abuse, loneliness, and community fragmentation.”[7] While the Corrections Service of Canada has attempted to implement the Gladue factors into correctional decision making, the application falls short. Rates of imprisonment for Indigenous women have continued to increase.[8] Investigations find that there is no evidence of Gladue factors in correctional decision making. A process that fully and consistently includes the Gladue factors must become a mandatory policy for Healing Lodges to be successful.

One cannot separate the long harmful effects of colonization and residential schools from the over-representation demonstrated above. The impacts of colonization are felt via low income, unemployment, lack of education and opportunity, substance abuse, and loss of access to community, land, children, and culture.[9] All these factors provide a greater likelihood for Indigenous peoples to commit crimes. Most Indigenous women will live at the intersection of racism, sexism, and violence on the outside world. This only continues in the traditional prison setting. “Physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists are typically white and male. How can we be healed by those who symbolize the worst experiences of our past?”[10] The healing lodges attempt to address the effects of colonization such as loss of culture and trauma by immersing participants in healing and learning in a safe place. The staff who lead programming and interact with participants in section 81 Lodges are Indigenous and have specialized training, leading to trust and a sense of safety for participants. Overall, Healing Lodges are successful in responding to the underlying causes of offending and help rehabilitate offenders, lessening the burden on communities and the criminal justice system.

Calls to Action:

Healing Lodges are supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Call to Action #35 commands the federal government to eliminate barriers to the creation of additional Indigenous Healing Lodges within the federal correctional system. Further, Call to Action #36 calls for all levels of government to work with Indigenous communities to provide culturally relevant services to inmates on issues such as substance abuse, family, and domestic violence, and overcoming the experiences of having been sexually abused.[11] These Calls to Action recognize the need for culturally appropriate programming to address Indigenous over-representation and recidivism. The federal government has committed to implementing the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, yet many of these recommendations, including those listed above, are not fully honoured.[12] It is important for the government to implement these Calls to Action to effectively address the inequities in our criminal justice system. Healing Lodges are one proven alternative criminal justice method that improves the lives of offenders, lessens crime, improves broader society, and moves us further on our reconciliation journey.

Participant profile:

The Correctional Service of Canada studied the profile of Healing Lodge participants from 1995 to 2001. There were 530 offenders in Healing Lodges over that time. 85 percent of offenders were men, while 15 percent were women.[13]Considering the Healing Lodges were specifically advocated for with women’s needs in mind, and that Indigenous women are the group most represented in our criminal justice system, this statistic is a failure. There are 15 percent women participants not because there is not a need or desire for women’s Healing Lodges, but because there are not enough resources going towards creating these opportunities for women offenders. 87 percent of residents were Indigenous. 61 percent had less than a grade 10 education and 65 percent were unemployed at the time of arrest.[14] These statistics prove the intersectional underlying reasons for offending as outlined in R v Gladue, and highlight why Gladue principles should be applied in correctional decision making. Indigenous people are more likely to not finish high school, not have employment, and more likely to live in poverty. People living in poverty are more likely to commit crimes, often due to unmet needs.[15]

90 percent of residents had previous adult convictions and 44 percent had previous youth convictions.[16] As explained earlier, higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and lack of education increase the likelihood of recidivism. Our criminal justice system should measure its success by recidivism rates. The prime function of our criminal justice system should be to rehabilitate offenders, especially those wronged by past government failures, thereby making our communities safer. Healing Lodges represent an effective way to rehabilitate offenders and address the root causes of offending.

Recidivism and Success:

Several studies have shown that participation in cultural programming, ceremony, and one-on-one meetings with Elders greatly decreases recidivism rates. A 2001 study found that Indigenous offenders who participated in cultural programming had a 3.6 percent recidivism rate, compared to 32.5 percent who did not participate. Those who participated in ceremony had a 14.4 percent recidivism rate compared to 24.2 percent. Indigenous offenders who had elder one-on-ones had a 12.9 percent recidivism rate compared to 26.8 percent who did not participate.[17]

The Healing Lodges are well received by both participants and corrections staff. 88% of residents said that their experience in the Healing Lodges will help integrate them back into their communities. A strong majority of participants left with a better sense of self, community, and personal history. In staff interviews, most felt that the Healing Lodges were beneficial to the offenders and that the Lodges were very helpful in reintegrating offenders into their communities.[18]

Current barriers to success:

Although Healing Lodges and relevant cultural programming have found success, there are also many challenges in realizing their full potential. Most of the Correctional Service of Canada staff suggest that they do not have enough staff with experience in traditional Aboriginal healing methods. Most staff also suggest that there are not enough attempts to follow-up with offenders.[19] Many of the Lodges expressed difficulties in planning events due to budget constraints. The Healing Lodges are obviously very successful for the participants who get to access them, but there is a serious capacity issue that means many that would benefit from the programming do not get to access it. There are very few beds available, and they are always in high demand. Take Manitoba for example, which has the highest percentage of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and 74% of adults in custody are Indigenous.[20] With only one Healing Lodge in the province, the community's needs are left unmet. A real commitment and investment into alternative justice would benefit the overall community by lessening the amount of crime and recidivism rates. This could also lead to less taxpayer money spent on our criminal justice system as rehabilitation is the goal and less people will reoffend over time. Establishing more Healing Lodges would also help us on our reconciliation journey, honouring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

[1] Native Women’s Association of Canada, CSC Healing Lodges and Section 81 Healing Lodges Policy Backgrounder (November, 2019), online: Native Women’s Association of Canada Knowledge Centre <> at 11. [2] Ibid at 12. [3] Ibid at 6. [4] Taryn Hamilton, “Healing Lodges: A Strong Predictor of Success in Canada & Recommendations Moving Forward” (2019) at 15. [5] Ibid at 17. [6] Ibid at 8. [7] Native Women’s Association of Canada, supra note 1 at 22. [8] Ibid at 23. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid at 18. [11] Ibid at 8. [12] Ibid at 8. [13] Taryn Hamilton, supra note 4 at 14. [14] Ibid. [15] Native Women’s Association of Canada, supra note 1 at 4. [16] Taryn Hamilton, supra note 4 at 14. [17] Government of Canada, Correctional Service of Canada. “An examination of healing lodges for Federal Offenders in Canada”, (2015), online: An Examination of Healing Lodges for Federal Offenders in Canada <> at 78. [18] Ibid. [19] Ibid. [20] Taryn Hamilton, supra note 4 at 8.

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