'Not a get-out-of-jail-free pass': Indigenous healing lodges defended in wake of McClintic transfer

In the wake of outrage over the relocation of convicted murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic to a healing lodge, the head of a women's healing lodge in Edmonton is defending both the safety and effectiveness of Canada's nine Indigenous healing lodges.

'We believe in ceremony and elders' teachings and programming to address trauma,' says Claire Carefoot

Claire Carefoot is the executive director of the Buffalo Sage Wellness House. She defends both the safety and effectiveness of Canada's nine Indigenous healing lodges. (CBC News)

The head of a women's healing lodge in Edmonton is defending both the safety and effectiveness of Canada's nine Indigenous healing lodges, in the wake of outrage over the relocation of convicted murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic to a healing lodge in Saskatchewan.

"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free pass to come here," said Claire Carefoot, executive director of the Buffalo Sage Wellness House, a 28-bed urban facility that houses minimum-security inmates who have committed crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery.

"We have the same kind of supervision and restrictions they have in a prison. Only we're doing it in a healing way."

McClintic is serving a life sentence for the gruesome murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford in 2009. She was transferred from an Ontario medium-security prison to the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, which is designed to rehabilitate offenders and has no fences.

Buffalo Sage Wellness House in Edmonton was opened in 2011. Artwork done by inmates hangs on the walls. (CBC News)

News of McClintic's relocation to Okimaw Ohci has prompted widespread outrage, from the leader of the Conservative Party who called the transfer "reprehensible," to Stafford's father, who described his daughter's killer as a "dangerous predator" in an open letter to the prime minister.

The federal government has ordered a review of McClintic's relocation.

Carefoot would not comment specifically on the McClintic case, but says there are rigorous layers of review by corrections officials to assess an offender's risk to public safety, before a decision to move him or her to a healing lodge.

"We're very, very careful who we bring here ... so that we know there is no safety issue when they come," said Carefoot.

"If there was any doubt at all that they would commit violence towards children or anyone in the community, they would not be here."

The healing way

Buffalo Sage Wellness House opened in 2011, one of nine Indigenous healing lodges introduced in an attempt to address high rates of Indigenous incarceration.

Beginning at the front doors of Buffalo Sage, it's not a typical prison. Artwork done by inmates hangs on the walls: photographs, painted masks, dream-catchers and sewn blankets. And officials call them "residents," not "inmates."

"We believe in healing. We believe in ceremony and elders' teachings and programming to address trauma," said Carefoot, who estimates 97 per cent of women at Buffalo Sage have been abused.

It opens up the women up, like peeling an onion. When you pull back the layers of all this hurt and anger, you get to the true healing of a woman- Claire Carefoot, executive director of the Buffalo Sage Wellness House

"We believe that is the best way to protect the community when these women are released."

A Cree elder lives at the facility during the week to provide spiritual guidance, and women participate in ceremonies at sweat lodges, powwows and sun-dances. Other healing sessions, such as the eight-week Warrior Program, aim to teach offenders about historical trauma and how it has affected their lives as Indigenous people.

"It opens up the women up, like peeling an onion. When you pull back the layers of all this hurt and anger, you get to the true healing of a woman," Carefoot said.

In the wake of outrage over the relocation of convicted murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic to a healing lodge, the head of a women's healing lodge in Edmonton is defending both the safety and effectiveness of Canada's nine Indigenous healing lodges. 9:55

In McClintic's case, it's not clear whether she has Indigenous ancestry. Carefoot said it's rare for healing lodges to accept non-Indigenous offenders, but it can happen, so long as they're prepared to "follow the culture and ceremonies."

Healing lodges aim to get at the roots of offender's learned behaviours, said Carefoot, which is often more difficult for women than punitive time sitting in a jail cell.

"During these programs they have to accept responsibility for their offences, for their victims, and they have to accept responsibility for their own behaviour … When you have healthy people, they're not going to hurt other people."

Watch: Life inside an Indigenous women's healing lodge:

Check out Cross Country Checkup's host Duncan McCue's documentary on a minimum-security indigenous prison for women in Edmonton. Tune in this Sunday at 4 pm ET on Radio One for more discussion on the correctional system in Canada. 9:33

(An update on the two women profiled in the embedded video: Phoebe Bull served her time and is now living in the community. Gloria Gladue was released from prison, but went missing in 2015. Her remains were found in 2018.)

Risk of escape

When the women aren't working through healing in programs, they can listen to music, do beadwork, paint and cook. They aren't on lockdown, have keys to their rooms, and the lodge feels more like a university dorm than a jail.

Buffalo Sage operates much like a guidance centre, with women assigned daily chores and taught skills to prepare them for reintegration back into society.

"Somebody serving a life sentence who served 20 years in prison needs to come out slowly. We need to be able to teach them how to ride a bus, how to live in the community, and how to get along with other people," said Carefoot.

A healing circle takes place at the Buffalo Sage Wellness House. (Native Counselling Services of Alberta)

Inmates at Buffalo Sage go on supervised day trips outside the facility, for example, to attend courses such as parenting classes at Indigenous family centres. They can slowly earn privileges such as unescorted day parole, when they can request visits to the public library or attend AA meetings.

In the facility itself, there are security officers on duty at all times, and security cameras everywhere. However, no one attempts to physically stop a woman who decides to leave. Edmonton police are notified, at which point it's in their hands.

This year, between March and May, five women escaped from Buffalo Sage. Four were re-apprehended, one remains at large, though police are aware of her whereabouts.

From my 29 years of experience in the correctional system, I believe that any one man or woman who truly gets involved in the Aboriginal cultural aspects of life does not reoffend. - Claire Carefoot

Carefoot says the women who escaped apologized to her. Once a woman leaves, she can't come back and is re-admitted to the Edmonton Institution for Women.

"They were dealing with trauma and we know that a trauma response is to run. We know they were dealing with that in a very in-depth program at the time. But none reoffended. None of them."

While research into the effectiveness of Indigenous healing lodges has shown mixed results, a 2013 government backgrounder claims that the recidivism rate for offenders who completed programs at three Aboriginal healing lodges was six per cent, below the national rate of 11 per cent.

Carefoot says Buffalo Sage only recently began tracking recidivism rates, but she's convinced they're on the right path.

"From my 29 years of experience in the correctional system, I believe that any one man or woman who truly gets involved in the Aboriginal cultural aspects of life does not reoffend. If they're truly involved."

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.