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Construction Begins On Healing Lodge On Nekaneet Band Reserve In Cypress Hills

Heather Sterling

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JUNE 1994      v23 n05 p01  
Although rain had been forecast, the day of June 8 dawned bright and sunny, and a gentle wind swept over the Nekaneet Band Reserve in the Cypress Hills, as the Elders, in a Sunrise Ceremony, opened the doorway for construction of the Healing Lodge for Federally Sentenced women. Later in the morning, a signing ceremony formally acknowledged the agreement reached between the Correctional Services of Canada and the Nekaneet Band, with words of congratulations, thanks and good will.

On the rolling Cypress Hills, the Healing Lodge will have an endless supply of pure spring water, room to be at one with the land and the wildlife, and access to wild berries and herbs for healing. The warm chinook winds that blow across this part of be country promise mild winters. Construction will begin August 1, 1994 and the $9.2 million facility - a central administrative building, an elders lodge and groups of residences nestled in the trees - will be ready for occupancy July 1995.

For the Nekaneet Band, the community of Maple Creek and Corrections Canada, it was a day of celebration. After two years of planning, the Healing Lodge was to be a reality. To mark the occasion, the Nekaneet band hosted their annual Spring Feast in conjunction with the signing, and cultures met to enjoy the Feast, Giveaway, Powwow and Round Dance.

The Healing Lodge was first conceptualized by a group of women; members of the Elizabeth Fry Society and Correctional Service of Canada and Native Elders. The Initiative, "Creating Choices", brought forward recommendations

Construction Begins On Healing Lodge On Nekaneet Band Reserve In Cypress Hills

Heather Sterling

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JUNE 1994      v23 n05 p2  
to decentralize Kingston Penitentiary for Women and create a special unit for aboriginal women, explains Pieter de Vink, Deputy Commissioner, Prairie Region, Correctional Services of Canada.

Chief Glen Oakes, Commisioner of Corrections Signing the Agreement for the Healing Lodge Chief Oakes
Chief Glen Oakes, Commisioner of Corrections
Signing the Agreement for the Healing Lodge
Chief Oakes

Larry Oakes, Nekaneet band Councillor, was very much involved in the process, as were people of Maple Creek, from all walks of life, says de Vink. The program that evolved differs a great deal from traditional principles of incarceration, he says. These are principles based on the traditions aboriginal people and it is a developing process without assumptions or preconceived ideas on the part of Correctional Service of Canada. "We do have to recognised that this is a corrections facility and people have to be protected and we, therefore, have to execute our responsibility in that regard. But there have been no problems in the planning stage. Things have developed in a very constructive way," says de Vink. "I would not be surprised if the facility was being run by aboriginal people within a year."

The Healing Lodge is a brave new departure from the traditional incarceration style of Correctional Service of Canada. "Few attempt to break new ground and this program will be under the intense scrutiny of other countries as it develops," says John Edwards, Commissioner, Correctional Service of Canada.

Corrections Canada has modelled the Healing Lodge on much of what it has learned in studying the Samson facility for men in Hobbema, just south of Edmonton.

"When the job (director of the Healing Lodge) was advertised, I felt it was time I started working on the healing of women who are incarcerated," says Norma Green, who comes to the post from Kikawinaw and has already begun hiring and training staff. "And I am interested in the rights of individuals. It is important that we start the process. I have a commitment to these women and I will do my utmost: do my best. I commend Corrections Canada in working with us and that they took that leap to ensure the Healing Lodge got built," she says.

Joan Lavalee, an elder who has contributed much to the process, has faith in the outcome. "I'm very happy the dream is coming true and things are falling into place. Our grandfathers told us, `We have chosen this place.' So we knew it was a special place, but we didn't know why. Then we realized that Aboriginal people were filling the jails and we realized what we could do for these people who have to be healed, with families and friends. There is a lot of healing to do among ourselves," she says.

The Healing Lodge, on this chosen site, is a place where aboriginal women will come to serve their time in a healing environment rather that a punishing one. For many of these women, hitting out and hitting back has been their way of trying to establish autonomy. Much of the frustration and suffering they have experienced throughout their lives will be addressed by offering an opportunity to voice those hurts and look for constructive ways to build a better future. The healing Circle will be an important part of this process. Elders will also be on hand for individual, personal counselling, says Green.

The Women will also be able to have their children come to live with them at the Healing Lodge; a far cry from the separation of often 2,000 miles of children from mothers serving time in Kingston Penitentiary. "We must thank Corrections Canada for being open-minded enough," Says Perry Bellegarde. Tribal Council Representative, T.F.H.Q. Tribal Council. "It's a true partnership. The winds of change are coming and people are becoming more attuned to our ways. After 500 years, they are recognizing our values. It is a good day. For if we have healthy individuals, they are not going to go back and repeat offences. It's an investment. Women have roles; to give life, and we want to reintroduce them to their responsibility."

Dwayne Barber, Agent for Mr. Lee Morrison M.P. Swift Current, Maple Creek/Assiniboine, voice a similar sentiment, "a high percentage of people pass through penitentiaries and return to crime. It is hoped that the Healing Lodge will have greater success," he said.

Jack Goshen, MLA Maple Creek Constituency, who has lived at the east end of these hills all his life, feels "the miracle will happen". To understand the power and tranquillity of this country and its people, he says, one must stand alone on a clear day and watch the eagle soar. The Nekaneet, he says, have looked at lives destroyed by alcoholism and have decided to be part of the solution. And for that, he has much admiration and respect.

"Correction Service of Canada sent us the right people. It was a learning process in what each side wanted and we had to educate Correction services on Indian tradition. But they were flexible and did everything they could to make this a native Healing Lodge." says Larry Oakes, Band Councillor. Regarding land assignment, the Department of Indian Affairs was most accommodating, he says, It was a case of government setting aside rule books and us recognizing that they have guidelines."

This initiative is indicative of the beginning of change and a new way of life in relating to Indian self government, says FSIN Chief Roland Crow. In Many areas there is evidence of sharing with non-Indians and a coming together of commitments in harmonious relationships. "In this endeavour we will stand behind you and are proud you are a member of our Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations," he told the Nekaneet band at the signing ceremony.

The Maple Creek community also played an important role in bringing the plan to fruition, says Larry Oakes.

"Our proposal (to Correctional Service of Canada) wasn't a grand and glorious production," says Edie Dean, Member of the Maple Creek committee. "We had no outside help, such as lawyers or writers, it just came from the heart."

Construction Begins On Healing Lodge On Nekaneet Band Reserve In Cypress Hills

Heather Sterling

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JUNE 1994      v23 n05 p03  
"Above all, we felt it demonstrated a Native and White community used to working together," says Joyce Drever, project co-ordinator. "It all came together naturally - the support letters from the Chamber, the R.M., the Maple Creek community and the Nekaneet band, which offered land."

When Joyce Drever talks of a community used to working together, she alludes to the interesting history of the Nekaneet Band, which Chief Glen Oakes talks of.

For thousands of years, the Cypress Hills were the home of the Cree, where they hunted game and buffalo; a sacred place where they came for healing, inspiration and to hear the voice of their Creator. But when the CP rail forged its way across the land in 1882, they were forcibly displaced by the government of he day that wanted to settle the band farther north or east.

Led by Nekaneet, the founder of the band, they refused to bow to white authority and crept back into the hills that were their home. There they hid, carving dwellings into the landscape, hunting and trapping for food. For the next 80 years, they lived without reserve or status. And although life was exceedingly tough, the Band had little to do with Indian Affairs and was able to preserve its traditions. Survival was also dependent on ranchers who hired band members to work, says Chief Oakes, and as a result, a close relationship evolved between the Nekaneet Band and the ranchers and residents of the Maple Creek area.

"There were also a lot of negative things," says Chief Oakes. "Alcohol destroyed many of our people. Many went to their graves without experiencing the rights of Treaty." But this is a new era, he says, and hopefully an end to injustice. On September 1, 1992, the Nekaneet was the first band to settle land entitlement. Also, based on Canada's not acknowledging the Nekaneet claims at the turn of the century, they are now proceeding to a specific claim, hopefully soon the subject for another signing ceremony, says Chief Oakes.

Everything has come full circle. This is a most fitting site for the Healing Lodge, says Chief Oakes. Through hardship, our people have preserved our traditions to help people who have had trouble fitting into a white man's world.

"This land has remained in its natural element for some reason. Maybe it was for this - the Healing Lodge," says Larry Oakes. "There are going to be jobs created and that's good. But our main attitude is `What can I do to help.' It's not for us to control this process. Let something else decide. We must trust."

It is into this accepting , non-judgemental environment that women will come to be healed; to share these hills for a season and retool their lives close to their Mother Earth.