Judges across Canada have recommended healing lodges for violent offenders, a CTV News review of court cases has discovered.
John Holmes, for example, was killed in 2016 when his wife stabbed him 17 times in their Alberta home. Barbara Holmes, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a crime described by Justice James Langston as “frenzied,” received a five-year sentence in 2018.
In his sentencing decision, Langston spoke at length about Canada's mistreatment of Indigenous people and noted that the killer’s mother had been in residential schools.
"I think the healing lodge in Maple Creek would be an excellent location for this woman,” Langston wrote.
That recommendation surprised John Holmes’ family.
"She never, ever wanted anything to do with her native heritage,” the murdered man’s sister, Linda Peterson, said of Barbara Holmes in an interview with CTV News. "It was just not right… It should be life for life."
Citing privacy, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) declined to say whether Barbara Holmes has served time at Maple Creek -- the same Saskatchewan facility where convicted child killer Terri-Lynne McClintic was incarcerated, causing public outrage and sparking a national debate that has resulted in the federal government toughening its rules on healing lodges.
The Holmes case, moreover, is one of several uncovered by CTV News in which judges recommended healing lodges for offenders convicted of violent crimes. Such cases include a Saskatchewan woman who fatally stabbed a man in 2016 and was sentenced to six years for manslaughter, and an Alberta man who violently sexually assaulted his partner that same year and who was also sentenced to six years, with the judge recommending that he serve all or part of that time in a minimum security healing lodge.
In Canada, the sentencing of Indigenous offenders is guided by a 1999 Supreme Court decision.
“Courts in Canada, whenever an Indigenous person is facing a possible loss of liberty, are required to hear social context evidence to inform of the person's unique background and heritage,” Aboriginal law expert Jane Dickson explained in an interview with CTV News.
While judges’ recommendations may carry weight, in practice, they are not binding on CSC, which makes its own determinations on where inmates should be housed.
Healing lodges offer a spiritual approach to justice and reconciliation in lower security settings than conventional prisons. Offenders receive Indigenous language lessons as well as family, nature and vocational classes. Over the past seven years, 20 people convicted of killing minors have served at least part of their sentences in such facilities.
Kassandra Churcher serves as the National Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which describes itself as “an association of self-governing, community-based Elizabeth Fry Societies that work with and for women and girls in the justice system.”
Healing lodges, advocates like Churcher say, are being mischaracterized.
“It's a prison where you're in custody for part of your sentence like any other prison across Canada -- the difference, of course, being there's culturally appropriate programming,” Churcher told CTV News from Ottawa.
At the time of writing, CSC was unable to provide information on how many offenders convicted of murder, manslaughter and sexual assault are currently housed in healing lodges. According to CSC, such numbers will be released “soon.”
With a report from CTV National News Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor