How a Cree grandmother helps dangerous offenders find their path to rehabilitation

Call to Action 30 urges governments to eliminate the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade. Pathways is part of a federal mandate for Indigenous-specific corrections programming aimed at reducing the number of Indigenous repeat offenders.

Pathways program aims to help reduce Indigenous overrepresentation in Canada's prison system

Dale Swampy and Cory Bitternose, two participants in the Pathways program at Bowden Institution in Alberta. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Every day is predictable at Bowden Institution, about 40 km south of Red Deer, Alta. The inmates rise with the sun, shower and eat breakfast all by 8 a.m. Then it's lockdown for an hour in their cells before an activity like schooling or group therapy sessions before lunch. The day carries on in routine until supper time and afterward the men have time to relax and maybe play a game of basketball or work out in the gym. Then heads are counted before bed and it all starts over again the next morning.

But things are different on the Pathways unit at Bowden. It's a program designed by Correctional Services Canada (CSC) for Indigenous offenders who are serious about pursuing their healing journey, aimed at reducing the number of Indigenous repeat offenders.

Pathways is part of a federal mandate for aboriginal-specific corrections programming given that Indigenous people make up about five per cent of the Canadian population, but 25.2 per cent of all in-custody males and 36.1 per cent of all in-custody females in federal penitentiaries are Indigenous, according to the 2016 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview.

In Pathways, working one-on-one with an elder is mandatory as is following a traditional way of life at all times. There is smudging, ceremonial teachings, sweats, and learning to follow the seven sacred teachings around respect and sharing. The program is offered at 23 sites for men and three sites for women across the country.

Take a look inside the Pathways program at Bowden Institution

6 years ago
Duration 5:49
First Nations inmates follow traditional teachings for rehabilitation

Research conducted by CSC in 2016 found inmates participating in Pathways were involved in fewer disciplinary incidents, had fewer positive urinalysis tests, and were more likely to transfer to lower security or be supported for section 84 conditional release. However, a 2016 auditor general's report said CSC has yet to develop tools to assess how Pathways contributes to an offender's progress toward successful reintegration.

Call to Action 30 urges governments to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade.

Dangerous offender

Ever since Cory Bitternose can remember, life was chaos, he said.

He grew up in Regina in a dysfunctional family with battered residential school survivors who struggled with poverty, abuse and addictions. Bitternose said he was sexually assaulted by a family member which, combined with the preceding adversity, ignited an uncontrollable rage that manifested itself in the form of a life of crime and violence.

"I wanted to express pain and that was the way that I expressed what was going on inside of me," he said.

There were small pockets of time when he tried to lead a normal life. At one point he settled in B.C. with a girlfriend, had two children and adopted a stepchild. But soon his inner demons once again became overbearing and he was drawn back into his old lifestyle.

Cory Bitternose drums in the Pathways unit. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Bitternose is nearly 10 years into an indeterminate sentence for a series of violent crimes including an attack on two women near Banff, Alta., in 2008. Bitternose remembers the alcohol- and drug-fuelled crime that sealed his fate behind bars. He admits to kidnapping the women and taking them to a deserted area to rape and beat them.

According to court documents, Bitternose told them he was a murderer and they would both die. He then punched and kicked them several times. One woman managed to escape, but Bitternose sexually assaulted the other woman repeatedly.

"I snapped," said Bitternose, with a grimace on his face.

"I pulled the truck over and committed the assault. I felt out-of-control rage. They were scared. Later on I learned how bad it was.

"I was lucky enough — they were lucky — because I could have killed somebody that day. When I look back now, I try to imagine what they were thinking and going through."

As a result of the Banff case, he was designated a dangerous offender and given an indeterminate sentence. The judge called him "a loaded gun with a hair trigger."

It wasn't until the last couple of years that Bitternose says he took the time to consider the feelings of the people he had hurt over the years. 

But he says, after years behind bars, he began to strip away the layers that bound him hopelessly as nothing but a criminal.

"It didn't happen overnight," he said.

"It's taken weeks, months, years of healing."

Kohkum Dora

Elder Dora Palmer, a.k.a. Rainbow Kohkum [grandmother], says after praying for direction about two years ago, the Creator told her to "go help the boys at Bowden." She said she's grown to cherish them much like family.

"They're so respectful in so many ways," she said.

"You look at them and accept them for who they are as Indigenous boys. I love them. I love working with the Indigenous boys on a daily basis because I accept them and they accept me for who I am as a Native kohkum."

Dora Palmer, or Kohkum Dora, is an elder in the Pathways program at Bowden Institution. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Palmer has worked as an elder within Corrections Canada for 12 years, and it's an assignment she takes seriously.

"People ask me, how dare you work with these kind of people? But when I look at them they're just as human as the next person. They were not in their right minds when they did their crime. Half of the people that did their crimes they don't even remember how it happened… so you accept them for who they are and believe that they could make a difference in today's world."

At first Bitternose was stunned that Kohkum Dora wanted anything to do with him. Before, he had been too ashamed of himself to talk to elders. He said he was confused as to why she cared about him.

"I said [to her] why are you doing this? She said, because inside there there's a lot of potential."

To get into the Pathways program, inmates have to have good behaviour for a minimum of six months straight, as well as show effort to better themselves, a willingness to learn and live a traditional lifestyle and work with elders.

After spending years working to address his past and issues with anger Bitternose was accepted into Pathways and, according to Palmer, is a changed man.

"He's a good role model to other inmates because of the way he handles himself and the way he speaks to others. They see that. All of the elders depend on Cory quite a bit for everything," she said.

A handmade ceremonial rattle is among Cory Bitternose's spiritual belongings. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Bitternose, 47, estimates that he'll be eligible for day parole by the time he's 55. He said there's still work to do on himself and he's willing to give it his all.

"Do I deserve to be out there? No. After all the stuff that I did, I have to wait until they say I'm ready. So I wait," he said.

From the solitude of his single room cell, Bitternose shakes a handmade ceremonial rattle and sings a traditional song as a way to release the past sorrows of his soul. The opportunity to be reconnected to his culture has played a big role in his rehabilitation for which he said he is forever grateful.

Finding the courage to get better

Dale Swampy, 28, is from the Samson Cree Nation out of Maskwacis, Alta., a community notorious for gang activity. Swampy said he wasn't involved in gangs but just hung around the wrong crowd and made bad choices while intoxicated.

He's serving an eight-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Swampy stabbed his best friend's girlfriend during a housewarming party at his apartment in 2012.

He doesn't talk as openly about his crime as Bitternose — he said the family has already gone through enough. Instead, he's eager to talk about his progress in Pathways.

"There's not a day that I don't regret what I did," said Swampy.

"I knew I had to change. I came to jail in denial, thinking that I wasn't this person; I wasn't angry, violent or an alcoholic. I was too proud to admit those things….

"It took me a long time to find the courage to get better, the strength, counselling sessions, prayers, sweats."

Dale Swampy, a participant in the Pathways program at Bowden Institution. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Swampy came from a broken home with similar circumstances as Bitternose. Alcoholism, racism and violence all played a role in the man he would become.

But Palmer has grown to adore Swampy and calls him "exceptional."

"When there's a problem he'll come back and tell you things that you didn't expect to hear," she said.

"He keeps an open mind on how to take care of stuff when there's a problem that arises."

Swampy said he would like to one day have a family, maybe become a businessman in the construction industry and be a role model to youth.

"I don't want to see more of our people coming to jail… I want them to seek help, guidance. Racism, a lack of belonging, stigma against Aboriginals — until we recognize that and can rise above the attitudes that a lot of us feel society has for us then things can change," he said.

Dora Palmer, an elder with the Pathways program, walks with participant Dale Swampy at Bowden Institution in Alberta. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

Without the Pathways program, access to an elder with cultural and spiritual support, Palmer believes most of the current Pathways participants at Bowden would be a lot worse off. She said Pathways gives them hope, purpose, courage and responsibility and said she dreams that their culture will help them come full circle.

"I tell people, don't be afraid... if you have it in your heart to help others, this is the place. By being around and having hope in them, helps them."

This story is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.