An internal audit concluded elder services are unable to meet Indigenous offenders' needs
An Indigenous human rights activist says he hopes an upcoming Correctional Service Canada (CSC) review of elder services at prisons will lead to meaningful change for the Indigenous inmates who make up 32 per cent of the prison population.
"We all have a stake in how people are treated in prison because it could be one of our loved ones someday," said Albert Dumont, a spiritual adviser and human rights activist from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in western Quebec. He worked as an elder at the Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ont. for three years.
Elders are employed by CSC to conduct faith-based ceremonies and offer spiritual counselling to Indigenous inmates. CSC's review, which has not yet begun, is being launched in the wake of an internal audit that found elder services aren't keeping up with inmates' needs.
The audit also found flaws in the way CSC selects its elders.
Marty Maltby, acting director general for Indigenous initiatives with the Correctional Service of Canada, told CBC News the agency wants to work on recruiting and retaining elders as demand for their services continues to grow.
"We see a lot more competition," Maltby said, referring to other government departments that hire elders for media events and conferences.
"It's an unusual place to be, to try to contract for spiritual services."
Almost half of the elders interviewed for the internal audit reported being exhausted and overworked. Many of them also said too much of their time is being swallowed up by administrative tasks.
CSC employs anywhere from 120 to 140 elders, said Maltby, who suggested that number might increase.
"It might mean that we need to look at different resources in addition to elders, but not with a reduction," he said.
Maltby said CSC might increase the number of Indigenous spiritual advisers it employs by recruiting people who are still working toward becoming an elder. He also suggested a pay increase might be coming.
Harry LaForme, a retired judge from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, said a big part of the problem is that CSC doesn't understand the work of elders.
"I blame the corrections system because they don't know how to measure the effectiveness," he said. "They don't even know what elders do in the community or in the prisons."
LaForme, now senior counsel at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP in Toronto, said CSC should view elders as community representatives who can help offenders reconnect with their culture.
He said the impact of elders can be measured by early releases — and he's disturbed by the fact that the elder program doesn't appear to be affecting the overrepresentation of Indigenous people behind bars.
"Clearly, something is wrong," LaForme said.
Indigenous inmates continue to serve larger portions of their sentences than non-Indigenous offenders before release on day or full parole, according to the latest data from the correctional investigator's office.
Indigenous men have the highest rate of recidivism of any inmate group: 65 per cent.
Beverley Jacobs, a former member of the national Indigenous advisory committee at the Correctional Service of Canada, said it's up to CSC to bring the focus of the elder program back to healing and wellness.
Jacobs, who is also a lawyer at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, said the agency should make sure elders maintain connections with offenders after they're released.
"It's corrections that's causing the barriers more than anything," said Jacobs, a senior adviser to the president of the University of Windsor on Indigenous relations and outreach.
Independent Sen. Kim Pate, who advocates for the rights of prisoners, said elders offer Indigenous inmates a support system that otherwise wouldn't exist.
"I've seen individuals who've gone from segregation, literally losing their minds in terms of mental health issues, work with an elder and start to move through the process and ultimately [into] the community," Pate said.
CSC should be calling on Indigenous community leaders for advice on recruiting elders, Pate said.
"Too often, corrections is deciding who is an elder, is contracting those individuals and is dictating what they can and cannot do," she said.
Dumont said he's alarmed by reports of people posing as elders and non-Indigenous prisoners taking advantage of elder services.
"It's like a plague," Dumont said.
Most elders vetted by the Correctional Service of Canada come to the agency through outside recommendations, the internal audit said.
As part of that vetting process, Maltby said, elders must identify themselves as First Nations, Inuit or Métis and have a letter of support from their community recognizing them as an elder. He said CSC is not going to attempt to identify people falsely posing as elders in the corrections system.
"I don't think it's something, as a federal department, we're going to be telling elders, if they are or aren't elders," he said.
A feast for a slain inmate
The upcoming review is behind schedule, Maltby said, because CSC is still looking for an organization that can conduct it from an Indigenous perspective.
He said he thinks the work will be done within the next few months. The goal is to implement any changes next year, he said.
Dumont said that, despite the concerns about the program, elders do good work in Canada's prisons.
He said that during his time at Millhaven, he brought together leaders of the various Indigenous cultural groups in the prison to reduce the level of violence through dialogue.
"They started to respect one another so the violence went down," Dumont said.
Dumont said he confronted the agency in 2011 following the death of Jordan Trudeau, a 29-year-old inmate from Wikwemikong First Nation on Ontario's Manitoulin Island who was shot and killed by Millhaven guard.
Prison officials feared a riot would break out, he said, and he was given carte blanche to stop it.
"They wanted to kill a guard," Dumont said.
"I told them if they tried to do that, that the only thing that was going to happen is that they were going to get killed too."
Dumont said he reminded the inmates that Trudeau wouldn't have wanted violent retaliation. He convinced them instead to take part in a feast to honour his memory.
"Some of the staff in the prison didn't like it," Dumont said. "They were angry that an inmate was celebrated or feasted. But it happened."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: email@example.com.
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