Edmonton

'I'm not going back to prison': How a healing lodge motivated one inmate to change

There are no locks or bars to keep Christopher Houle from leaving the Stan Daniels Healing Centre in Edmonton, but the inmate has never considered escaping.

‘Every person that resides at the Stan Daniels Healing Centre has had to earn their way here,’ says director

Christopher Houle is allowed unescorted temporary absences (UTA) from Stan Daniels to attend self-help programs.

There are no locks or bars to keep Christopher Houle from leaving the Stan Daniels Healing Centre in Edmonton, but the inmate says he has never considered escaping. 

"I don't want to jeopardize everything that I've worked on," Houle said. "If I do that, all the work that I've put into myself, all the work that other people have helped me with, it's all for nothing."

The 29 year-old Ojibwe man from Manitoba is serving a life sentence for second degree murder. He has been in custody since 2007. 

Houle was transferred to Stan Daniels one year ago, after serving most of his sentence in the Edmonton Institution, a maximum security facility. 

Like all residents of Stan Daniels, Houle had to prove his willingness to rehabilitate himself through his Indigenous culture in order to be accepted in the healing lodge.

"Every person that resides at the Stan Daniels Healing Centre has had to earn their way here," said director Marlene Orr. 

"They've had to demonstrate that they've been working on an Indigenous healing path, to look at the issues that brought them into their criminal cycle."

Stan Daniels is run by Native Counselling Services of Alberta, which also operates Buffalo Sage Wellness House for female inmates in Edmonton.

There are three other Indigenous run healing lodges in Canada, located in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. Corrections Canada operates four more.

They were opened to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada's prison system. 

Indigenous adults accounted for 28 per cent of admissions to federal correctional services in 2017, while representing only four per cent of the Canadian adult population, according to Statistics Canada.

Christopher Houle takes part in a smudging ceremony at the Stan Daniels Healing Centre, in Edmonton. (CBC)

Focusing on culture allows Indigenous people to begin healing from generations worth of trauma stemming from residential schools and colonization, Orr said.

"There needs to be more opportunities in the community for Indigenous people to address the healing of Indigenous people," she said. "That's the only thing that I know that works for our people to make change."

A 2013 government report indicated that offenders who attended a healing lodge had a six per cent recidivism rate, compared to a national average of 11 per cent.  

Healing journey 

Stan Daniels is the closest thing to home that Houle has experienced since entering the prison system at age 18.

"Being far away from home, it gives me a great sense of relief and ease that I can have my culture to hang on to, especially being incarcerated and doing time," he said. 

The In Search of Your Warrior program has been instrumental in helping Houle deal with the childhood trauma that influenced his bad decisions. 

"You're looking back, going to each traumatic event and you're dissecting it and trying to find the root of what exactly made you, so you can address it, understand it."

Houle is gradually working toward obtaining his full parole. 

Christopher Houle paints a mural on a wall inside the Stan Daniels Healing Centre. (CBC)

Connecting through culture

Houle also participates in traditional Indigenous ceremonies, like smudges and sweat lodges.

"It's good, we get away from the city," said Houle of the sweats he's attended outside of Edmonton. "Being out there on a reserve, in the wilderness, the trees, the birds, it's a lot more satisfying, free."  

These small tastes of freedom are preparing Houle for his eventual return to society. 

He already feels like a changed man.

"Not being antisocial, actually carrying out a conversation with somebody and looking them in the eye. Smiling, joking, laughing, a lot of the characteristics that you need to be a productive member of society."

Above all else, Stan Daniels has given Houle a sense of identity and belonging as an Indigenous person.

"Being a part of a family that is actually connected to the community, it's a great relief. It's satisfying and it makes me more confident in myself."

The walls inside of the Stan Daniels Healing Lodge have been painted by the residents. (CBC)

Support system

Staff at the healing lodge ensure that offenders have Indigenous supports in place to help them successfully reintegrate into society. 

"They no longer pose a risk to society to reoffend, that's what we shoot for," Orr said. "They don't come back, that saves taxpayers' money, that increases the safety in communities."

The men who leave Stan Daniels have the tools they need to break the cycle of abuse and addiction, she added. 

"We have better role models, better fathers, better uncles, better grandfathers that will now work their part to address those intergenerational effects of Indian residential schools."  

Houle doesn't know if he'll ever have children of his own, but he's confident that he will never go back to jail.

"I truly believe that when I get out, I'm staying out. I'm not going back to prison."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca