Connecting Indigenous inmates to their culture: Grand Chief performs at Manitoba prison

Behind prison walls, National Indigenous People’s Day was celebrated this month, with inmates at a Manitoba federal prison granted access to music, drumming and sharing circles — positive steps forward to reconnect Indigenous inmates with their culture and rehabilitate a group that is incarcerated at a disproportionate rate.

In mid-June, CTV News was given exclusive access inside Stony Mountain Institution to observe community partners holding an afternoon of music, dancing and food for nearly 200 Indigenous inmates who had signed up to participate.

The prison yard was transformed into an outdoor venue, where a band led by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee performed songs for inmates.

Settee has visited the prison before to do outreach with inmates, but this is the first time he brought his band, Keewatin Breeze, with him.

“We wanted to show them that they are not forgotten about, and they are still our people,” Settee told CTV National News.

“Show those relatives of ours here that they matter and that we are waiting for them when they come out on the other side, and want to be able to give them the hope to start a new life, because everybody deserves a second chance.”

A report released at the end of May shines a light on the importance of this work — auditor general Karen Hogan found in the report that Black and Indigenous offenders face poorer outcomes than any other groups in the federal correctional system and have greater barriers to returning to life when their sentence is up.

But this information isn’t new. Hogan pointed out that this issue has been reported on in previous audits, and correctional services have done little to adjust their practices.

Meanwhile, the number of Indigenous inmates in Canadian prisons is rising.

According to statistics from 2018, Indigenous men represent 28 per cent of Canada’s prison population. Among women’s prisons, Indigenous women make up 40 per cent of the prison population.

Yet Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the overall Canadian population. And the number of Indigenous women sentenced federally has increased by 60 per cent in the last decade, numbers that speak to how the Indigenous community is over-scrutinized, over-policed and ultimately over-incarcerated in Canada.

Settee pointed out that having access to one’s culture can help in the healing process and in understanding how to make amends and change your life.

“The message that we carry is that everybody can change, anybody can turn their life around,” he said.

The performance at Stony Mountain was for inmates from the medium-security portion of the prison. The men who attended are convicted criminals, many serving life sentences.

“As a lifer, you don’t have a guarantee that you’re ever getting out,” Jonas Budd told CTV National News.

The 52-year-old is in prison for second-degree murder. Recently, he started working with elders in the institution’s spiritual lodge, and said he has found it transformative.

“Because I am a product of the Sixties Scoop, my parents are a product of the residential schools — so a lot of abuse, a lot of lost culture, lost language,” he said.

That intergenerational trauma is a common thread among Indigenous inmates, and reconnecting these inmates to the culture they’ve lost is a big part of the work being done here.

On this day, there was dancing and drumming.

One inmate is serving his 15-year sentence through a program which focuses on Indigenous healing.

“I fell into drugs and alcohol and that’s what led me here today,” Larry Duck said. The 31-year-old reflected that being able to utilize Indigenous teachings of healing is helping him.

“I feel like I’m finally a part of something that I’ve been searching for for many years,” he said.

The focus is on life back on the outside, with inmates offered education and counselling.

“Our role is reintegration,” Laura Kirby, manager of assessment and intervention at Stony Mountain, told CTV News. “Our role is not punishment. Our role is to meet the needs of these men and ensure that when they go back to their communities, they are successful.”

It’s a goal that Settee said he wants to help every person move towards.

He said that inmates had expressed gratitude for the performance, telling him and his bandmates that it was the “first time that anyone came to check up on us […] and it felt really good that somebody came to just say hi and say that we’re here for you.

“It’s an amazing feeling to do this.”

No matter how long a person is in prison, they should have the opportunity to access a better way forward, he said, and for these inmates, that starts with these crucial moments of connection to Indigenous teachings and their own culture.

“It could be 20 years, it could be 25 years, but they have those things to ground them and give them hope to live day to day being appreciative of life. It can happen here,” Settee said.

And the Grand Chief said he will continue to remind inmates of that, long after the show is over. 

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