Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

She says this alternative to prison saved her life. So why isn’t Canada investing in more of them?

April 2, 2024

Healing lodges were proposed to Ottawa as an alternative to federal institutions. But supporters said the federal government has not done enough to support them.

zinger and healing lodges.JPG
Correctional Investigator of Canada Dr. Ivan Zinger looked into the condition of Indigenous corrections and found that for every dollar corrections-run healing lodges received, Indigenous-run lodges received 62 cents.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Star: OTTAWA—Tania Ross spent 20 years in federal prisons, jailed at 19 when she received a life sentence for second-degree murder.

Ross entered the maximum-security Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary in 1999. Eleven years later, Ross decided it was finally time to change her life. She found Indigenous Elders who helped her reconnect with her culture. She said she started to heal.

“It was the true Elders that really had unconditional love and no judgment,” said Ross, who was born in the Opaskwayak First Nation in Manitoba and grew up in Winnipeg.

“I started digging deep into my childhood trauma growing up and I started forgiving myself.”

At 35, Ross transferred to the Indigenous-run Buffalo Sage Healing Lodge in Edmonton. When she received day parole in 2017, she asked to serve it closer to home in Winnipeg at the Eagle Women’s Healing Lodge and was given full parole in 2019. The healing lodges saved her life, she said, helping her leave behind her previous life of crime. 

“I don’t know if I could ever pay them back for all that guidance and love that they showed me,” she said. 

Today, Ross works as a motivational speaker and manager with at-risk youth. 

It’s success stories like Ross’s that have advocates pushing for more community-run healing lodges for Indigenous offenders. It’s an alternative to prison, where Indigenous offenders can complete their sentences through the use of culturally-based programs focused on healing trauma and reintegrating back into their communities.

Healing lodges were proposed to Ottawa by Indigenous advocates in the 1990s as an alternative to federal institutions. But supporters said the federal government has not done enough to support Indigenous healing lodges and needs to properly invest in them, open more, stop favouring Corrections Service Canada-run healing lodges, and change application criteria that currently works against Indigenous inmates. They point to evidence that shows healing lodges have lower rates of reoffending and help more Indigenous offenders reintegrate into their communities.

Today, Indigenous people make up 33 per cent of all federally incarcerated individuals, but just five per cent of Canada’s population. Indigenous women make up 50 per cent of incarcerated women and Indigenous youth make up 48 per cent. In maximum security placements, Indigenous men make up more than 50 per cent of inmates while Indigenous women make up nearly 70 per cent.

In Canada, healing lodges are split into two different categories: community-run lodges, and lodges run by Correctional Service Canada (CSC). While both are focused on cultural healing, advocates and former inmates have described CSC-run lodges as differing very little from minimum-security prisons, with stricter rules, guards and fences and sometimes even less cultural programming than what was offered in prisons.

Sen. Kim Pate said CSC has tried to manage Indigenous incarcerations without adequate understanding or respect for Indigenous knowledge, leadership, governance or healing principles.

“It’s really been an attempt to Indigenize the prison system and paradoxically, that has resulted in more Indigenous people being criminalized and imprisoned, not fewer,” said Pate, a former lawyer and executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Healing lodges have long been proposed as way to break the cycle and keep more Indigenous inmates from reoffending, she said.

The latest numbers covering a one-year period ending in March 2023, show both types of healing lodges had about a seven per cent recidivism rate for Indigenous offenders within five years. By comparison, almost 19 per cent for Indigenous offenders from traditional federal institutions reoffend within the same time frame.

First conceptualized as an alternative for incarcerated Indigenous women whom the traditional prison system had failed, healing lodges were officially established in 1992 through the Corrections and Conditional Release Act for all Indigenous inmates.

The initial proposal was for healing lodges to be run by Indigenous communities with a focus on healing, not imprisonment. However, when the first lodge, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, opened in Saskatchewan in 1995, it was run by corrections and has been ever since.

“The clear intent was that they should be run by Indigenous communities, not by corrections,” Pate said of the initial proposal by The Task Force on Federally-Sentenced Women in 1989.

“That had been completely subverted within the first 10 years. It had been subverted so that by 2000, almost every healing lodge bed was a corrections-run institution.”

There are currently 10 healing lodges in Canada, but none in Ontario, the Atlantic or northern regions. Today, while six lodges are run by Indigenous communities, the four corrections-run healing lodges still outnumber Indigenous-run lodges when it comes to bed space, with 250 beds compared to 189 beds.

Even within all healing lodges, there is only enough space for nine per cent of Indigenous inmates who are federally incarcerated.

In November, Correctional Investigator of Canada Dr. Ivan Zinger released his latest annual report, looking into the procedures and policies of Correctional Services Canada. He investigated the condition of Indigenous corrections and found that for every dollar corrections-run healing lodges received, Indigenous-run lodges got 62 cents.

Roxane Braun, spokesperson for CSC, said while both types of lodges perform rehabilitative services for Indigenous inmates, there are “important differences” that account for the funding levels. Indigenous lodges, which support minimum security offenders and those on conditional release, function “similarly to community residential facilities,” which generally come with lower operating costs, Braun said.

Corrections-run lodges manage both minimum- and medium-security offenders and therefore function similarly to higher-cost CSC minimum-security facilities, with CSC as the “primary provider of essential services, such as health care,” she said. 

Braun added funding levels are negotiated annually with partners “including yearly reviews against inflation,” and there was a 29 per cent increase in transfers of Indigenous inmates to healing lodges in 2023. There are also “ongoing discussions” about bringing more lodges to Indigenous communities, she said.

But Zinger told the Star this explanation for funding differences is discriminatory and “unjustifiable.” He said both Indigenous and corrections-run healing lodges serve the same function, but corrections’ are “far more modern, better maintained and better staffed, with much higher salaries” — as much as 50 per cent more.

“CSC is asking (Indigenous-run) healing lodges to provide the same level of security and services, but to do it for far less,” he said.

CSC decides who can serve their time at a healing lodge and accepts applications for healing lodges from Indigenous and non-Indigenous inmates. Applicants must show a commitment to Indigenous healing methods and have a minimum-security rating. 

Zinger’s report found that in the past decade, occupancy rates at healing lodges have been decreasing. Despite lengthy waiting lists, the average occupancy rates at healing lodges was 65 per cent at the time the report was written in 2023.

When asked to help explain the low occupancy rates at the Standing Committee for Indigenous and Northern Affairs last month, Zinger pointed to their minimum-security rating, which he called a “troubling trend.” Corrections Canada treats all healing lodges as minimum-security prisons, meaning Indigenous healing lodges compete with CSC institutions, which also have high vacancy rates .

Zinger said that puts pressure on CSC to fill its own institutions, leaving fewer Indigenous inmates able to access healing lodges in Indigenous communities.

“It’s very unfortunate and unless corrections is pushed to do more, and to do better, the situation is going to remain the same,” he said. Pate said the need for a minimum-security rating was never in the initial proposal for the lodges and today acts as a barrier for many Indigenous inmates who disproportionately serve higher security sentences.

Hazel Miron, senior investigator at the Office of the Correctional Investigator, told the committee many Indigenous inmates are not being transferred to healing lodges because of the application criteria and that it needs to be more “realistic” and take into account the Indigenous perspective.

Steve Bolan, executive Director of Stan Daniels Healing Lodge, said a big difference for Indigenous-run healing lodges is all their programs are vetted by Elders to ensure cultural sensitivity. He said their staff are also primarily Indigenous, allowing them to understand their residents’ trauma.

“We know how it feels — to a certain extent — we know the history and everything like that,” he said.

Advocates have described corrections-run healing lodges as minimum-security prisons with fences, guards and wardens and a lack of cultural programing.

In his annual report, Zinger recommended reallocating funding and transferring the control of corrections-run healing lodges to Indigenous communities.

The Ministry of Public Safety in their response said discussions involving “potential transfers” are “ongoing and at the request of those communities.”

Braun added that CSC is working with federal partners, including Indigenous governing bodies and organizations and the National Indigenous Advisory Committee to “identify and eliminate barriers” for additional healing lodges.

However, Zinger said there is no clear definitive plan.

“What I’m looking for is actually specifics and targets and time frames. Because without that, the the bureaucracy remains unaccountable and unresponsive.”

Joy SpearChief-Morris

Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics and Indigenous issues for the Star. Reach her via email: