Caring for Aboriginal sex offenders cast out of communities

In the anarchic world of prison, where other inmates often target and kill sex offenders, there are those whose job it is to care for men cast away from cultural and familial roots. These caregivers are often the only people left in sex offenders’ lives

Elder and halfway house director often only ones left in sex offenders’ lives

"I want to help other people understand that there is still hope for them; that there`s still hope for change," says Elder Joe Fossella, who works with Aboriginal sex offenders. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)

Aboriginal elder Joe Fossella participates in sweat ceremonies up to once a week in Vancouver, the weight of working with Aboriginal sex offenders wafting into the steamy air.

In the anarchic world of prison, where other inmates often target and kill sex offenders, there are those whose job it is to care for men cast away from cultural and familial roots.

Caregivers are often the only people left in sex offenders' lives. Fossella counselled Aboriginal sex offenders for eight years in federal prisons in B.C. His mission was, and remains, simple.

"I want to help other people understand that there is still hope for them; that there's still hope for change," said the 67-year-old member of Shíshálh First Nation on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast.

Hope for change

It's a testament of Fossella's strength that he's able to work with sex offenders at all. Fossella was sexually abused at age four, but didn't disclose the abuse until he was in his late 40s.

Fossella admits he used to have a low opinion of sex offenders. But understanding the man who abused him helped him come to terms with his own molestation.

"I began to understand we're all human beings, we've made mistakes, and [to] give that opportunity to that person being charged, to be able to help themselves correct their mistakes," he said.

Being a former victim also gives him a keen instinct when dealing with sex offenders, and a powerful place from which to speak to them.

"You can't bullshit a bullshitter. I can see the men when they're in denial," he said.

An elder's shadow

In Aboriginal communities, elders are viewed as knowledge keepers of culture and tradition. But a sex offence committed by an elder can forever cast a dark shadow over that traditional role.

Fossella tells the story of working with one Aboriginal sex offender who was an elder. The man was convicted of sex offences involving children and served five years in prison. Upon his release, the man was never able to reconcile his crime with his role as an elder in his tribe.

"I think he's still ashamed about what he's done, even though he's made major steps in his life to correct his behaviour," Fossella said. "I'm sure he's made amends with his family, but he chooses not to go home to his community."

Fossella is aware that some First Nations banish sex offenders, but suggests some First Nation leaders who ban sex offenders are themselves abusers.

"I've heard many stories … A lot of them are guilty of these same kind of issues," he added. "Some of those real dark secrets that are hiding away somewhere, they may pop out some day."

Treat sex offenders as 'brothers'

Some offenders reveal their crimes in prison training programs and begin to work through their issues, but once they leave prison, they carry the stigma of being a sex offender with them. In Vancouver, however, there is one place where they can find safe haven.

At the end of a dimly lit hall inside Circle of Eagles Lodge Society in Vancouver, Chief Executive Officer Jerry Adams sits in his cramped office, taking a break.
Jerry Adams is executive director of Circle of Eagles Lodge, an organization that works with Aboriginal sex offenders. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton/CBC)

For more than 40 years, Circle of Eagles has served as a halfway house for Aboriginal men released from prison. The facility is the only halfway house in B.C.'s Lower Mainland that caters only to Aboriginal offenders — they can apply from across Canada, through probation and the parole board, to get into the Lodge.

There are 17 residents at the Lodge. At any given time, as many as 10 are sex offenders.

"This is the closest they'll come to being home again after being in jail," said Adams, a member of the Gitlaxt'aamiks First Nation in northern B.C.

Inside the halfway house, the men follow strict rules, including not referring to residents as clients or offenders. Instead, they are referred to as "brothers."

"We're trying to be sensitive in who they are. We wanted to see ourselves as inclusive, we see them as our brothers and sisters and we want to work with them," he said.

According to Correctional Service of Canada (2015):

  • There are currently 534 Aboriginal inmates incarcerated in federal facilities across Canada for sex offenses.
  • Alberta, at 114, and Ontario, 94, have the highest number of federally jailed Aboriginal sex offenders.
  • B.C. has 91 Aboriginal sex offenders serving time in federal facilities. Half of them are repeat offenders.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Justice (2015):

  • There are 140 Aboriginal sex offenders serving time in provincial prisons.
  • The ministry's 2014-2015 Annual Service Report notes 25 per cent of all inmates in provincial facilities were re-incarcerated within two years of being released from prison.

Products of abusive environments

Adams, who started as a project manager tasked with overseeing repairs to the facility in 2009, never intended to work with former inmates. He worked in a correctional facility once, and like Fossella, admits he did not have a high opinion of inmates. He thought they should remain incarcerated.

We try and change their lives around to re-integrate them into the community and to me that's the critical part.- Jerry Adams, Circle of Eagles Lodge Society

But after being around brothers at the Lodge, he realized many were the products of the violently abusive environments they were born into.

"We get the end results. They murdered somebody, sexually assaulted somebody. We see the worst part of who they are. But if you talk to them, they're men and women who have many regrets about what they've done," he said.

"We try and change their lives around to re-integrate them into the community and, to me, that's the critical part," Adams said. "Some can't adjust though. They go back to jail, that's their comfort zone. To me, that's not a good thing."

Adams says many First Nations don't treat re-integrating former offenders as a priority because they have more pressing needs and limited resources to meet them. The stigma attached to sex offenders doesn't help.

But re-integrated offenders could potentially help heal a First Nation from intergenerational sexual traumas, Adams said.

"They've got stories, they need to tell that to the community, 'This is what I did. I don't want my nephews and nieces doing what I did.'"


Wawmeesh George Hamilton is an award winning journalist/photographer and a three-time BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association award winner. He has garnered three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards and was a 2018 Webster Award nominee. He graduated in 2016 with an MA from the UBC graduate school of journalism. He is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. @Wawmeesh