What is a healing lodge? Inmate's transfer to holistic facility renews questions
One month after Catherine McKay was sentenced to 10 years for an impaired driving collision that killed a family of four in Saskatchewan, she was transferred to a holistic correctional facility.
It’s called the Okimaw Ohci healing lodge. In Cree, the name translates to “thunder hills.” Located in Maple Creek, Sask., it’s one of nine federal correctional facilities that use indigenous approaches to justice and reconciliation to help rehabilitate offenders.
McKay’s transfer has angered relatives of the victims, who say the living situation lessens the consequences of her crime. Others have expressed similar frustrations online.
Healing lodges have been used by Correctional Services Canada since the mid-1990s. Indigenous and non-indigenous inmates can apply to live in a healing lodge, but all offenders must be thoroughly vetted for public safety concerns before being approved for the move.
“They’ve got to have a connection with the Creator. And in today’s society, that connection is either cultural or spiritual,” addictions counsellor William Crowe-Buffalo explained to CTV Saskatoon.
The lodges operate with indigenous programming, often with help from local indigenous communities. For female offenders, the lodges are minimum- and medium-security facilities. For men, they are only minimum-security.
Okimaw Ohci opened in 1995 and became Canada’s first healing lodge for women. It has 30 beds and, in 2012, was operated with 65 employees. The facility offers both single and family units, and inmates who are mothers are allowed to have their children stay with them.
The facility is centred around a circular spiritual lodge where elders hold teachings and ceremonies. Female offenders are trained in indigenous languages, family, nature, and vocational lessons and encouraged to make changes in their lives on the path to recovery.
“The resources are there, the people are there, there’s no more excuses. So people are changing,” Crowe-Buffalo said.
Each offender is provided with a personalized plan that touches on areas physically, emotionally and spiritually to grow.
Mental health counsellor Grant Severight believes McKay deserves the second chance.
“That woman needs healing just as much as anybody else,” said Severight, who pointed out that McKay was suffering from alcoholism at the time of the accident. “She never planned that. What she planned to do was get drunk and sort of numb the pain that she was feeling.”
According to Corrections Services Canada, the idea of operating healing lodges was first proposed by the Native Women’s Association of Canada in the early 1990s. The proposal was based on concerns that mainstream prison programs weren’t working for indigenous offenders, who are over-represented in Canada’s correctional system.
Of Canada’s nine healing lodges, four are managed by Correctional Services Canada and five are run by community partner organizations that sign an agreement with the federal agency.
With files from CTV Saskatoon