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Indigenous Support in Correctional/Custody Facilities

Tansi Nîtôtemtik/Negha Dagondih,

Today’s post will focus on the incarceration of inmates in the Northwest Territories, and the attempts to lower those numbers through programming. As always, the conversation deals with people’s lives, and we must approach a topic that is important to the Calls to Action critically, but gently. Today, we will focus on the TRC’s Calls to Action #35-37 and legal reform from an institutional perspective - specifically in the Northwest Territories.

Call to Action #35 states: “We call upon the federal government to eliminate barriers to the creation of additional Aboriginal healing lodges within the federal correctional system.”[1]

Call to Action #36 states: “We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to work with Aboriginal communities to provide culturally relevant services to inmates on issues such as substance abuse, family and domestic violence, and overcoming the experience of having been sexually abused.”[2]

Call to Action #37 states: “We call upon the federal government to provide more supports for Aboriginal programming in halfway houses and parole services.”[3]

In the Northwest Territories, within the last decade, there has been an acute awareness of what should be changed, as the routine of arrest-court-sentence was not benefitting the incarcerated nor the communities they came from. What is meant here is that when a community member is sentenced and taken out of the community, it means a hunter, clothes-maker, babysitter, or gatherer is taken away from the community's function and survival. In 2019, Minister Louis Serbet brought this to light and made comments on the progress of some initiatives.

Serbet said, “By working in close collaboration with Elders, Traditional Liaison Officers, and Indigenous staff, our Corrections Services continues to take special care and attention to ensure that programs delivered in our corrections facilities recognize the importance of Indigenous cultures and traditions. We are also delivering a suite of programs aimed at supporting inmates to become better aware of the triggers that lead them to engage in unhealthy and unsafe behaviours. Specific programs include Substance Abuse Management, Living without Violence, and the Respectful Relationships programs.”[4]

There seem to be gradual steps towards realizing and actualizing Calls to Action #35-37, especially on the points about programs in communities and at halfway points to community reintegration. It was explained in the same hearing that released inmates participate in programming similar to that which they received while in custody so they can continue to develop skills and habits that can ensure a better reintegration in the community with a new skill set to hopefully see them succeed after release. Education is also prioritized which is a positive step towards accessing beneficial programming and Call to Action objectives. Serbet said “Inmates have access to adult literacy, basic education and upgrading, high school and exam preparation, trades exam preparation, life and employment readiness skills, and assistance with pursuing post-secondary studies.” [5]

The South Mackenzie Correctional Centre located in Hay River has now adopted a Therapeutic Community model; under this model, substance abuse is properly seen as a root cause of the behaviour that lead the individual to be incarcerated.[6] Participants in the program take on helping and assistance roles in each other’s journey, and by doing this, work on the skills they are taught along with growth by being mentors to one another.

It seems like some inmates cannot fully experience and benefit from access to some of the programs, which seems to curtail the hopes of the programming and TRC Calls to Action #35-37. While the objectives of the new programming have to some extent made a difference, and there have been great developments for participants to the programming in correctional facilities in the Northwest Territories, there are a couple of downsides. An official with the Corrections Service of Canada said the federal agency doesn’t offer rehabilitative programming for the incarcerated in the N.W.T. because the programming is not available. "The only [federal] offenders we can keep incarcerated in NSCC [North Slave Correctional Complex] are the ones that don't require any programming,"[7] said parole officer Rebecca Austin.

Another interesting lens on this topic is how the current Covid-19 pandemic has affected incarcerated inmate numbers. “A backlog in court cases has been a more recent contributor to low occupancy, with many cases suspended for months and yet to reach a conclusion. Similar drops in occupancy have been noted in other parts of Canada. Whether or not those numbers go back up is yet to be seen, but I think that we have seen the numbers stay low and we haven’t seen any sort of repercussions in the communities,” the minister continued.”[8]

If there are no repercussions in the community yet, then why not take this as a sign that a focus on community programming, Indigenous traditional community healing, and traditional reintegration? Rather than have individuals waiting in prisons before sentencing, why not offer programming that integrates efforts and service back into the community? If a backlog of cases hasn’t resulted in an uptick in crime, then perhaps leaving potential inmates in communities to focus on land-based healing could be better funded and thereby reduce the negative impacts of taking people out of their communities.

“Overall, said Simpson [Justice Minister], the territory is currently holding 74 inmates in a system that can safely house 253.”[9] So do we divert funding? Do we prepare for potential pre-pandemic incarceration numbers once the pandemic settles? It should be mentioned that if the Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that less sentencing and less prison time has not resulted in a collapse of justice and societal functioning in the Northwest Territories, why don’t the federal and territorial governments take this opportunity to prepare for Indigenous, fair, and equitable sentencing and community integration programming?

While the governments in the north have done, and continue to do, great things for legal reform in the justice system, there is always more to be done. But it is not always so easy as just sharing suggestions and expecting immediate results and fixes. So we ask you, dear reader, what are some of your suggestions on the programming the correctional facilities in the north offer? What do you think will bring about the positive change and progression of Calls to Action #35-37?

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action”, (2015) at 3, online (pdf): Government of B.C. <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ministers’ Statements and Speeches “Louis Sebert: Improving Programs for Inmates in NWT Correctional Facilities”, (Aug. 13, 2019) online: <>

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Gleeson “Justice Minister defends programming at N.W.T. jails”, CBC News North (Jan. 17, 2020) online: <>

[8] Ollie Williams “​​Covid-19 has emptied out the Northwest Territories’ jails”, Cabin Radio (Nov. 30, 2021) online: <>

[9] Ibid.

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