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Summary: Access to appropriate programs for Indigenous prisoners in Canada is inadequate even though these important programs will not resolve the issues related to over-representation of Indigenous people in prison.
Over the past 50 years Canada has been “Indigenizing” aspects of federal and provincial prisons. This process includes prison courses teaching Indigenous cultures and colonial history, prison Elderships, ceremony in prison, and developing specialized prisons called healing lodges.
Despite the many efforts to Indigenize prisons, we know remarkably little about how these programs work. Can cultural programming help people heal and inspire more radical changes to the system? Or is Indigenizing prisons Canada’s latest colonial project, as some critics have suggested?
Experts and advocates are rightfully skeptical of Indigenizing prisons, considering the immense problem of mass incarceration in Canada. Indigenous people now make up over 30% of federal prisoners despite representing only 5% of the population, a proportion that continues to increase. This problem is even more pronounced in the prairie provinces, where Indigenous men represent between 45% (Alberta) and 65% (Saskatchewan) of the federal prison population. While Indigenizing prisons is not a solution to mass incarceration, critics who dismiss cultural programming as “more colonialism” are misguided. Incarcerated Indigenous peoples fought for these programs and they are supported by recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, both of which call for expanded and improved cultural prison resources.
A history of resistance
Indigenizing prisons began with the prisoner-led Native Brotherhood – and later, Sisterhood – movement in 1958 in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. The movement fought for cultural recognition and pressured prison administrators to sanction traditional sweat and pipe ceremonies. They also encouraged healing through ceremony, drug and alcohol treatment programs, group therapy, support networks, and cultural handicrafts.
Elders such as Arthur Solomon also played a key role in the movement. Solomon was an abolitionist who called Canadian prisons a “crime” and “abomination” while working inside the system to help incarcerated Indigenous people develop self-worth and live dignified lives. He also created an Indigenized prison curriculum in Ontario.
Our work on the University of Alberta Prison Project reveals that incarcerated Indigenous people find cultural programming invaluable, while also highlighting problems with these initiatives. Our research team interviewed 587 incarcerated men and women in federal and provincial prisons in Western Canada, 40% of whom identified as Indigenous. We asked participants about their opinions on cultural programming.
First, participants praised Indigenized programming for teaching them about their history and culture. Some participants – particularly the most marginalized people – had not encountered aspects of their culture before imprisonment due to being in the foster system or because of living conditions such as poverty, homelessness, gang involvement, and struggles with substance use.
Second, Indigenized resources helped participants feel empowered and proud of their cultural identity. Some participants explained how they initially felt shame about being Indigenous because of racist foster parents or through accepting stereotypes about their cultures. Indigenized prison programs encourage cultural expression and explore Canada’s colonial history, including how anti-Indigenous policies can cause intergenerational trauma. These programs helped participants feel proud to be Indigenous by positioning their marginalization and personal traumatic experiences into a wider historical and colonial context.
Third, cultural resources helped participants cope with colonial traumas, including residential school and foster system experiences. Most incarcerated people are victims of physical or sexual violence, which is more common and intense among Indigenous people due to intergenerational trauma. Consequently, cultural programming often has a therapeutic or healing component and most participants desired help and encouragement for improving their mental and physical health and overall well-being. Participants saw cultural programming as essential for overcoming problems with drug use and for developing confidence, as many incarcerated people struggle with self-worth related to childhood trauma — especially Indigenous women.
Fourth, Indigenized programming helped create a culturally attuned support network between Elders and fellow prisoners. Participants told us that positive reinforcement from Indigenous peers and Elders was just as important as the program content itself, and was something they actively sought out. Some of the most marginalized people in our sample – particularly those who experienced homelessness, extreme poverty, and the foster system – told us how Indigenized programming was their first time experiencing a supportive environment.
Criticisms and obstacles
While our participants found cultural programming invaluable for supporting mental health and healing, most incarcerated people have inconsistent and limited access to these resources. Our participants’ concerns about Indigenized programming focused almost exclusively on how prison management and staff bar access to cultural resources. For example, prisons disproportionately classify Indigenous people as high security risks, which diminishes or restricts access to programs, Elders, and ceremonial materials. Even some minimum-security units do not facilitate Elder visits or courses. Participants also explained how staff often denied access to cultural resources because of racism and general ignorance of Indigenous cultures.
In light of these problems, our participants called for cultural programing to be expanded and for easier access. They also suggested that prison staff take courses on Canada’s colonial history and learn about Indigenous cultures and healing.
Prisons are required to meet prisoners’ spiritual needs under the Canadian Charter, and, for most Indigenous peoples, culture is spirituality. Indigenized prison programs are therefore a fundamental human right. However, we cannot stop at “Indigenizing prisons”. Canada’s justice system emphasizes retribution and domination, which inherently undermines Indigenized programming’s focus on healing and empowerment. Indigenized prison programs support the dignity of incarcerated Indigenous peoples, but realizing the potential of these initiatives requires transitioning into Indigenous-led justice and healing processes beyond prisons.
This post is a condensed summary of a 2022 study called Indigenizing Prisons: A Canadian Case Study Justin Tetrault is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alberta Augustana and a proud citizen of the Manitoba Métis Nation.
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