'You can feel it in your heart': Powwow dancing provides healing for former inmate returning to school

Megan Mandes is going to school this fall after she was released from jail last January after serving an 18-month sentence.

Megan Mandes attends Yellowhead Tribal College in Edmonton after 18-month jail sentence

Megan Mandes says she is going to school this fall for her daughter. (Emilio ​Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Megan Mandes stomps her feet, waves her arms and shakes her head to the left.

Her heart is pounding.

She mimics the steps of her aunt and mentor Dr. Lillian Gadwa, world champion Jingle dancer, but she's not at a powwow. She's not even on her home reserve of Muskeg Lake First Nation, Sask.

It's a healing dance. It's powerful. You can feel it in your heart, in your spirit, in your soul.- Megan Mandes

She's in solitary confinement at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre.

"I just danced in my cell. I danced in my cell like every day. There was the radio and I would dance to any song that was there," Mandes told CBC from the comfort of a school library.

"It's a healing dance. It's powerful. You can feel it in your heart, in your spirit, in your soul." 

Megan Mandes wearing traditional regalia. (Submitted by Deanna Ledoux)

The former inmate has come a long way. She was released last January after serving an 18-month sentence for breaking and entering with intent to commit assault.

She wants to start a business and has enrolled in a two-year general studies diploma at the Yellowhead Tribal College in Edmonton.

"I really enjoy going to school. It's like a new start," said Mandes with a laugh. She is determined to rectify the fact that she wasn't allowed to study while behind bars. She couldn't further her education because she spent long periods in confinement.

Hope and resilience despite difficult past

Mandes said being caught in the inferno of drug and alcohol abuse for several years led her to commit crimes.

"I know addiction and addiction knows me," she said.

Her mother, Deanna Ledoux, said Mandes grew up with a history of family trauma.

"Megan comes from several generations of residential school survivors. Myself, my father, my grand-father, we were all raised in St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask.," Ledoux explained.

Megan Mandes (left) with her best friend Angeline Crier Gadwa (centre), and her mother Deanna Ledoux (right) at the Yellowhead Tribal College Library in Edmonton. (Emilio ​Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Ledoux sees parallels between her time in residential school and her daughter's incarceration.

"She was an inmate. They weren't treated as people; they were treated like a number. That's what we were in residential school," she said.

Ledoux said she feels that her daughter, who is mother to a seven-year-old girl, is a rare case of resilience, and is overcoming generational trauma. Ledoux said she's proud of Mandes.

While behind bars, Mandes never gave up on herself.

I have to do it for myself and for my baby.- Megan Mandes

"I worked out, I read lots and I wrote lots. I helped other girls with their homework," she said.

"I wanna be awesome. I wanna give light, and love, and positivity to everybody...I have to do it for myself and for my baby."

Mandes marked her first summer out of jail by dancing at powwows every weekend. She said jingle dancing keeps her sober.​

She is happy to go to school at the same time as her daughter, Jazzleen. 

Megan Mandes and her daughter Jazzleen prepare their lunches for school. (Emilio ​Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Self-appointed advocate for inmates' rights

Mandes was a prisoners' rights advocate during her incarceration. She said she started "fighting the system since day one."

"Everyone is human and they try to teach you like you are an animal and was not gonna take this. Like treat me right," she said.

The Elizabeth Fry Society in Saskatchewan quickly noticed Mandes during a routine visit at Pine Grove Correctional Centre.

"She stood out as somebody bright, articulate, young, feisty, who wanted to make a change in her life and be a spokesperson for other people," said executive director Sue Delanoy.

According to Delanoy, Mandes advocated for other female inmates and helped them notably with their discipline charges.

She saw herself as a bit of a voice for other women and she self-titled herself as an advocate.- Sue Delanoy, Elizabeth Fry Society

"She saw herself as a bit of a voice for other women and she self-titled herself as an advocate." 

Delanoy said Mandes is a change marker. Her biggest contribution was to motivate other prisoners by setting an example.

Culture led success

Mandes attributes her success to having access to her Cree culture as well as the support of her family and friends.

She attends Yellowhead Tribal College, an institution where students learn, while receiving cultural support.

Trevor Duplessiss, department head of general studies and governance programs, is happy to count Mandes among the 300 students.

"I'm looking forward to see her journey and watching her accomplish her goals in the next couple of years," he said.

Delanoy is convinced prison made Mandes stronger. She said Mandes is committed to lead a productive life.

"She is definitely a role model and if anything, she's a role model for her daughter."


Omayra Issa


Omayra Issa is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. She has reported in several Canadian cities, including Saskatoon and Ottawa. @OmayraIssa