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Women's healing lodge provides a ray of hope

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NEKANEET FIRST NATION, Saskatchewan - Huddling around the indoor tipi, a gathering of 20 women releases emotions ranging from the smiles of laughter to the tears of anger. In a relaxed setting, those participating recognize this exercise isn't supposed to be fun or a time to vent their frustration.

Attendance is mandatory at the daily sharing circle on the grounds of the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge. As the name implies, the women here in southwest Saskatchewan want to improve themselves. But their stay is not voluntary.

Under the mandate of Corrections Canada, Okimaw Ohci doesn't fit the traditional images of a prison or jail. Nestled atop the spiritually powerful Cypress Hills, Okimaw Ohci, translated to mean "Thunder Hills," is still a place of incarceration.

Intended to be personal and even soul-searching, these discussions, sometimes developed and planned but often spontaneous, are part of the psychological therapy. While not everyone talks, they do have the opportunity to divulge personal information about themselves, their family life or even what has recently bothered them. Besides the prisoners, who are referred to as residents, local elders and the warden also participate. This creates an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

"That's the philosophy of the circle because we're all equal. In the circle there is no higher or lower (authority) and it's a chance to share," warden Clare McNab said. She is affectionately known as the mother of Okimaw Ohci. "If we're not being real and if I don't share, how do they learn to share?"

Whatever security exists in the morning circle is also extended throughout the 160-acre property. Constructed in 1995, Okimaw Ohci is one of five federal institutions across Canada for women but the only one that incorporates traditional Native healing as part of the rehabilitation. The main building is circular-shaped in the image of a Thunderbird and of the 28 inmates that reside here; the vast majority are Aboriginal.

The environment is conducive to healing without punitive measures. Save for the trilingual sign (English, French and Cree) with the wording "Corrections Canada" beside the miniature Maple Leaf flag, upon first and second impressions there aren't any clues such as armed guards suggesting this area houses lawbreakers.

An unmanned gate controls vehicular traffic and following the gravel road to the top, the building's colorful facade appears to be a big playground set, almost mimicking the structure in the real-life daycare near the entrance. With a flowerbed and rock garden planted in front, coupled with a John Deere maintenance cart parked in the circular driveway, the scene mimics a country club.

Unquestionably, the purpose of Okimaw Ohci, a facility classified as both minimum and medium-security, is to provide comfort for its residents. Those wanting to spend time here are required to fill out application forms and of several criteria required, one includes having a profile which shows low risk of flight.

By every appearance this is an easy place to do time, the physical absence of cells and shackles should allow residents to free their minds and cleanse their psyche. Behavioral councilor and facilitator of the Aboriginal Parenting Program, Sheree Thomson hopes those who are selected to finish out their sentences - longer than two years for federal institutions - respect the goals and intentions as stated in their admission letter.

"At first this looks like a cozy place to be but if you're doing your work and looking inward, it's not comfortable at all," Thomson said.

Respecting how infrequently adults actually confront each other with joy and sorrow in the "outside world," skepticism may exist towards the reality of the sharing circle and the rest of the compound as an artificial setting. However Okimaw Ohci is likely one of the first times for many of these women to express themselves in a safe and non-judgmental manner. The circle breaks that silence and can permit the aggressive or timid to speak their mind.

Coming forward to praise the benefits of the lodge was resident Roxanne Villebrun. While the rest of the parenting class was learning how to create a moss bag, Villebrun, 31, stepped away from the sewing machine and described how this place has helped her.

"Now I see the good in other people and I don't have a chip on my shoulders," the mother of two said. "If a person says they can't [change], it really says they won't."

Almost replacing the halfway house, the average stay for residents here is six months. Before arriving they are likely at the end of their sentence and are soon eligible for unescorted transfer absences and statutory releases. That's why the women have a respectable amount of freedom.

With three years on the job, McNab, who was a nurse before becoming the warden, has compiled an unofficial data review on how Okimaw Ohci has worked. Over the last six years, there is only a 9 percent recidivism rate where residents will commit a new offense when on parole, a particularly low figure. Yet, a relatively high amount, 30 percent, will break their conditions of parole requiring them to return.

"When they come back we don't see that as a failure but a teaching opportunity that they can learn and identify for themselves what went wrong," said McNab.

There is a danger about how the residents can become too comfortable in this setting. The security of two- or three-person shared apartments; well-cooked meals in the cafeteria; a caring environment without fences or armed guards; and a designated routine but without rigid rules are all daily elements that many of the women never had before entering Okimaw Ohci.

"We've had some women come back and say 'This is my home' and that's scary," McNab said.

Two years ago the serenity of Okimaw Ohci was disturbed when a hostage-taking incident resulted in two residents escaping. Their capture was quick as they were found just off the grounds but they couldn't have gone far anyway. The nearest town to the sparsely populated Nekaneet reserve is Maple Creek, 20 miles away, and transportation is infrequent along the grid road in this rural area.

With a resident-to-staff ratio of 1-to-2, there really exists on a personal level the chance to practice social skills. Even if these bonds are temporary, alliances and friendships forge, often based on experience and age. Usually the older women will provide guidance to the younger residents who can outwardly portray street-tough images.

One of the few lifers at Okimaw Ohci is Irene Peepeetch. Forty-six, she's been in the system for almost three decades and has been bounced around in different prisons across Canada. Finally, she saw this oasis as her last hope.

"Because I had become institutionalized within the system, I no longer knew how to function in society and there was little else left to do but time," said Peepeetch who signed away certain mandatory releases in her application.

Following her release in the spring, Peepeetch will leave urban life and return to her reserve to reside with her mother, with whom she recently made peace. She'll continue to pursue her artistic endeavors, including beadwork, a talent she discovered while jailed. Her crafts are for sale in the lodge's lobby.

"I'm thankful the people gave me the chance to prove myself and that there is hope for everybody no matter how young or old you are," she said tearfully, following a group session of singing in the prayer center.

For Villebrun, release is imminent and in celebration, she recently purchased a white gold and silver band. This marked not only a birthday gift for herself but an anniversary present for one year of being clean.

"Maybe in a way anybody who reads this will know that a person can change no matter who you are or where you are," Villebrun said.

She hopes to open her own hairdressing salon when she returns home, with a new-found confidence that could only be realized following her stay at Okimaw Ohci.