Indigenous

Culture plays key role in reintegrating Aboriginal sex offender to his First Nation home

“It's hard living with this stigma because I know I've made that mistake. I take responsibility for that. That's not the person I am."

Elders and health workers say community buy-in key to reconciling with others

Recovering sex offender Joseph says going back to his cultural roots has helped him to heal and reintegrate into his home community. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

At a beach in British Columbia overlooking the Salish Sea, Joseph strolls along the sand and begins humming a chant used for prayer that his late grandfather taught him.

"He chanted it after he was finished speaking at a potlatch," says Joseph, an Aboriginal man in his late 40s who grew up in a small First Nation community on the west coast of Vancouver Island (CBC News has agreed to protect his identity).

"It helps me get grounded when I'm not feeling so great about myself."

Home is something Joseph doesn't take for granted. A convicted sex offender, it's been six years since he walked out of prison into an uncertain future.

He knows that under ancient tribal law, he would have been banished or even sentenced to death for his offence. But today, Aboriginal culture is what has helped him heal and return home.

"I was lucky I was able to return home after prison because of the stigma about what happened," he says.

'It should never have happened'

It happened during a drug and alcohol-fuelled night in 2009.

Joseph was partying with a 17-year-old girl when he sexually assaulted her. He was arrested and charged with one count of sexual assault. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison and two years' probation.

"I know that I should have been more responsible throughout the whole incident," Joseph says. "It should never have happened."

Joseph served his time in a provincial jail. He participated in the forensic sex offender program, which is mandatory for convicted sex offenders. Joseph says that during the program, he examined his offence, took responsibility for it, and changed his thinking about women and sex.

"There's not many people who would take a brutally honest look at themselves like he did and commit to change." - Ellenore, tribe councillor

He also came to terms with his own past. As a child, he says he was molested repeatedly by a teenage girl who babysat him.

"I was angry. I believed that I didn't deserve that. My respect for women went down because of it," he says.

He says his abuser was never punished for molesting him, and he's still bitter about that, saying she now works in the child protection field.

Going home

In 2011, after his release from prison and a stay at a halfway house, Joseph returned to his First Nation and moved into the home one of the tribe's councillors.

Ellenore (CBC News has agreed to also protect her identity) says that what convinced her to invite Joseph to live with her and her family was his willingness to look deep inside himself and confront the abuse that turned him into a sex offender.

"There's not many people who would take a brutally honest look at themselves like he did and commit to change," Ellenore says.

Not all tribe members welcomed him back, though.

"A couple of guys called me a pedophile to my face. That wasn't even my crime," Joseph says. "It's hard living with this stigma because I know I've made that mistake. I take responsibility for that. That's not the person I am."

Once back home, Joseph participated in community culture nights, even teaching some members how to dance with cedar headdresses, something he learned as a child. That kept him focused, maintains Ellenore, and allowed him to give back something that was disappearing from the tribe.

Cindy Robinson, a health worker from the remote First Nation community of Kitasoo, says her village had little resources to reintegrate sex offenders like Joseph. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

"He witnessed cultural things growing up with his grandparents that no one else ever saw," she says.

Joseph says practicing and sharing Aboriginal traditions filled a void that conventional therapy couldn't.

"It wasn't until I picked my culture back up that I was able to start really healing, forgiving myself, seeing myself as a productive, decent human being in my community."

Seeking better services

In the remote northwest coast First Nation community of Kitasoo, health worker Cindy Robinson is leading a movement to get proper help for returning sex offenders.

Robinson says she understands that some communities banish sex offenders. But, she says, banishment should be a second step.

"If we're going to be telling people they can't come live in the community because of allegations, then we should [first] provide better services for them if they're going to be here," Robinson says.

It wasn't until I picked my culture back up that I was able to start really healing, forgiving myself, seeing myself as a productive, decent human being in my community.- Joseph

She observed her village has no capacity to deal with sex offenders when they return from prison.

"[The] clinicians we do have, they're not equipped to help with people with severe case needs such as sexual offenders and pedophiles," Robinson says.

Her motivation is rooted in personal history: her adopted father was convicted of sex offences in 1992, but he had no access to treatment services in Kitasoo when he returned.

He was facing trial for a second sex offense in 2004 when he committed suicide, Robinson says.

She is especially disturbed because her father successfully adopted a daughter after his first conviction; his second offence involved that daughter.

"The Ministry of Children and Families never screened him properly," Robinson alleges.

Robinson says she wants to see her First Nation hire male clinicians specifically trained in dealing with sex offenders. She also wants to see a program developed to take sex offenders to the outreaches of Kitasoo territory, where they would work with counsellors, program staff and elders.

Robinson has been pushing her band council to adopt these measures, as well as lobbying the First Nations Health Authority, which is responsible for health for B.C. First Nations, including mental health programs.

She's also been in contact with Manitoba's Hollow Water First Nation, which operates the Community Holistic Circle Healing, a restorative justice program that works with sex offenders and victims.

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