When Mary Ann Villeneuve left prison in 2011 she had nowhere to turn.
She had entered in 2010, imprisoned for a violent crime, and served with 12 indigenous women, including those in the maximum security unit. Living in Toronto during parole, she ached for a sweat lodge ceremony. But Villeneuve, originally from Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario, could not find any culturally tailored assistance to help her transition to the outside.
“I had to fight with CSC [Correctional Service Canada] hand over fist to get what I wanted,” said Villeneuve.
“Basically they're dropped off in Toronto and there's no real transition,” said Patti Pettigrew, a caseworker at Aboriginal Legal Services, a legal agency serving Toronto's indigenous community. “It's not addressing their needs, so they find themselves re-offending.”
Enter the Toronto Aboriginal Social Services Council, whose staff has a vision. Made up of 10 organizations, the council is building an urban healing lodge in the city of Toronto for federally sentenced indigenous women. In a system that often seems set up for failure, the new program is offering an alternative to the harsh reality that many women face when they are released. The Thunder Woman Healing Lodge incorporates indigenous values and traditions with a focus on education to prepare female former prisoners for life on the outside.
Pettigrew has seen a high number of indigenous women coming out of prisons and arriving in Toronto. Most often they are emerging from the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison based in Kitchener, Ontario. More needs to be available for these women given the statistics and outcomes, said Pettigrew. Indigenous women are deemed the fastest-growing prison population, accounting for 32 per cent of all incarcerated females, an 86 percent increase over the past decade.
Villeneuve herself saw a spike in the number of indigenous women incarcerated during her short stay of just over a year in Grand Valley, she told Indian Country Today Media Network.
“When I walked in those doors at Grand Valley in the minimum-medium security area, that number grew to sixty,” she said.
“The real desire for it has to do with the work that we do every day, and the people we see every day, and the families and community that are affected every day,” said Christa Big Canoe, legal advisory director at Aboriginal Legal Services, a member of the Social Services Council. “A number of them live in cities, and that's where they found themselves having issues with the law to start with.”
“This is something sacred,” said Villeneuve of her struggle to find culturally relevant services. “We look at this differently than how they look at their laws. That's where that divider is.”
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."
“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.”