For a moment, Jonathan Peltier’s gaze is fixed on a framed photograph taped to the wall beside his desk at the Wiikwemkoong Justice Program offices on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
The picture, with its weathered orange hue, evokes an immediate nostalgic energy.
A sunny autumn day in Regent Park during the early ‘90s. Four teen boys in acid-washed jeans, sporting mullets and adolescent smirks, stand together.
“I guess back then we kind of called ourselves the lost boys,” Peltier said, “the ones who never grew up, right? That don’t grow up.
“The one on the right is my best friend,” he says, but then stops and corrects himself. “Was my best friend. He died just about three years ago.”
Only two of “the lost boys” have lived to tell their stories after tumultuous experiences with intergenerational trauma, drugs and the law, said Peltier, 49.
The picture hovers above a quote by Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general: “The path of Justice is not advanced or achieved thru half-measures, good intentions or lofty rhetoric. Hard choices, innovative actions, transformations in laws and policies, new understandings and attitudes, new patterns of behaviour ... is what is needed.”
It’s a daily reminder for Peltier.
'I was arrested at the age of 13'
It speaks to him, as a reintegration worker responsible for helping Indigenous offenders reconnect with their community upon release. And as a former inmate.
“I was arrested at the age of 13 for the first time,” he said, “I was sent to Cecil Facer in 1987. Cecil Facer is a secure youth facility in Sudbury, Ont. It was my first exposure to incarceration. So I had to spend almost a year there.
“I spent most of my youth going in and out of group homes and secure facilities because of break and enters, you know, car thefts. Mostly drinking-related offences.”
From 1987 to 2012, Peltier served time in the federal and provincial correctional system in Canada.
The offences include assault charges.
The CBC has not seen a copy of his criminal record, but he says his last offense was 10 years ago.
In the 10 years since his last sentencing, through his work with the Wiikwemkoong Justice Program, Peltier has consulted with Public Safety Canada on the development of a framework to reduce recidivism.
He has also delivered cultural sensitivity training for new correctional officers.
Now, both his personal experiences and his work to reintegrate Indigenous offenders into their communities have turned Peltier’s attention to legislation and how to utilize it to heal and reintegrate these individuals.
The legislation, specifically Sections 81 through 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, deals with Indigenous offenders and alternative ways of serving out time - like healing lodges - in First Nation communities.
Rates of incarceration have only worsened
Healing lodges were first implemented by the federal government in 1995 to address the disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous men and women.
The idea behind healing lodges is to shift the purpose of incarceration from a punitive model to one of rehabilitation, and allows for First Nation communities to participate in their members’ reintegration.
Healing lodges use culturally specific programming that is intended to address the factors that led to incarceration.
According to Statistics Canada, as of 2018, Indigenous adults accounted for about 30 per cent of admissions to provincial custody and 29 per cent in federal custody. That’s all while representing approximately four per cent of Canada’s adult population.
These rates of incarceration indicate a situation that has only worsened over time. About a decade ago, according to Statistics Canada, admission rates to provincial custody sat at about 21 per cent and 20 per cent for federal custody.
Peltier is in discussions with Correctional Service Canada (CSC) on the steps that need to be taken in order to utilize the legislation in his community and establish a Section 81 healing lodge on Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in northern Ontario.
Healing lodges are operated in two ways: Four of the current 10 are run directly through CSC, while the other six are operated by Indigenous communities or organizations under the oversight of CSC.
Under Sections 81 through 84, Indigenous inmates can apply to serve their time in their communities in a healing lodge.
No fences, no bars at healing lodges
Currently, there are no Section 81 healing lodges in Ontario. While the legislation exists for them to be used by Indigenous offenders, there are barriers to doing that, Peltier said.
“Serving your sentence in your First Nation community, sure, it sounds really good. But we can’t facilitate a release in our community because of the lack of infrastructure for the supervision needs and, of course, for public safety needs,” he said.
Peltier said he’s not trying to change legislation; he’s trying to ensure the existing legislation is used so that Indigenous people can heal and rehabilitate meaningfully.
Buffalo Sage Wellness House in Edmonton is one of the country’s 10 Indigenous healing lodges. It’s been operating since 2012.
The 28-bed facility houses minimum-security female inmates who have committed crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery.
Not all offenders are eligible to serve out time in a healing lodge. Corrections officials assess the risk to public safety before it’s decided whether to move an offender to a healing lodge.
Residents at healing lodges like Buffalo Sage are not forced to stay. There are no fences or bars confining them to the property.
But should residents decide to leave, a process takes place in which police are notified.
Why doesn't Canada have more healing lodges?
But it’s not often that healing lodge residents choose to leave, said Marlene Orr, chief executive officer with Native Counselling Services of Alberta, which operates the lodge.
Orr said healing lodges help offenders to reintegrate and also help decrease the likelihood they’ll reoffend and re-enter the system.
“We hear back from them from time to time, when they’re doing well,” Orr said.
“Or, we’ll hear from people in the community saying, ‘You know, I ran into this person, they’re taking this training program. They’ve raved about their experience in your healing lodge. They’ve changed their life.’
“Do healing lodges work? Absolutely,” Orr said.
When people ask her why there aren’t more healing lodges in Canada, her response is there isn’t a strong enough strategy in place to facilitate expansion.
In her view, a co-ordinated effort - established between various government departments including CSC, Indigenous Services and financial backers like the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which funds capital projects - is crucial to bringing more lodges to Canada.
“So often Corrections [CSC] gets a bad wrap, ‘You’re not putting enough healing lodges in place.’ But they can’t force other governmental departments to engage,” Orr said.
“There must be a better overarching strategy to co-ordinate, to make more healing lodges available.”
If we’re talking about why people are cycling through the criminal justice system, some of them started out as victims and victims of violence.
For Sara Berghammer, chief executive officer of the John Howard Society in Sudbury, a healing lodge would be a welcome method of supporting Indigenous offenders in northern Ontario.
The society works and advocates for people who get in trouble with the law or are at risk of doing so. The organization delivers more than 80 programs and services centred on prevention, intervention and reintegration across Ontario.
“For years, the John Howard Society has always recommended that custody be the last resort because we know the conditions inside and some of the struggles that occur when people are in custody,” Berghammer said, “A healing lodge would be a great alternative.
“The research shows that they help reduce recidivism and because we’re working with so many Indigenous folk, it’s really important that healing lodges be considered, especially in our community.”
Berghammer said the rate of recidivism in Canada overall currently sits at 23 per cent, but that number rises to 38 per cent for Indigenous people.
“Which means that thousands of people each year are being reincarcerated and Indigenous people are at the most risk.”
For Berghammer, the correctional system needs to move away from a punitive model because it’s not working.
“It’s not about punishing a person. There’s an immense amount of suffering that already occurs in a person’s life and they’ve really hit rock bottom when they find themselves in custody,” she said.
“Suffering doesn’t change people’s behaviour.”
Emphasizing potential for positive change
Thinking about potential concerns that community members might have over the possibility of establishing a healing lodge on Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Peltier says, “Violence is a real truth in Indigenous life.”
He acknowledges that public safety and appropriate supervision are important issues that would need to be addressed.
And while his vision of a Section 81 Healing Lodge for Wiikwemkoong is still in its early stages, his major concern for the moment is to ensure discussions with CSC drive home the potential for positive change, in a facility that would focus on healing and rehabilitation rather than perpetuate a cycle of punishment and violence.
“If we’re talking about why people are cycling through the criminal justice system, some of them started out as victims and victims of violence. And then the violence turns into almost, you know, it’s a learned behaviour,” he said.
“Violence was used for punishment in residential schools. Why wouldn’t what they learned then be learned back home?
“I’m not proud of what I’ve done. Or the people I’ve possibly victimized,” he added. “And I realize that, you know, today, I want to be remembered for the work I’m doing today.”