Let's Talk - Sharing the Stories and Voices of Correctional Services Canada

Elders at CSC – The Cornerstone of Indigenous Corrections

June 21, 2024
Elders at CSC - the cornerstone of Indigenous Corrections

“Each one of us has a journey that we are given. Each day we go into the journey, we learn something. If we make a mistake, it’s a teaching,” says Dalton Francis, an Elder at Atlantic Institution.

He is one of the many Elders across the country who Correctional Service Canada (CSC) relies on to help better meet the unique needs of Indigenous people in its custody.

Kathy Neil, Deputy Commissioner of Indigenous Corrections, describes Elders as the cornerstone of Indigenous corrections.

“They provide cultural and spiritual guidance, foster healing, and promote a sense of community and belonging.  Basically, they bring kinship and community to the institutions,” she says.

The overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian prison system is the result of colonialism and systemic discrimination in Canada.

This has meant more risks for the Indigenous youth who are exposed to violence and/or poverty in their family and in the communities where they live. This, in turn, can lead to gang involvement or criminal activity.

Dalton Francis

Dalton Francis

Indigenous adults in Canada may have limited education, income, employment and housing, all of which affect their physical and mental health. These issues lead to Indigenous peoples coming into conflict with the justice system.

The Elders play a vital role as community leaders for the Indigenous people who are incarcerated in our prisons. They are cultural leaders, but in many instances, they also serve as parental figures and spiritual teachers. They are able to acknowledge the trauma and hurt of generations and provide individualized counselling support, cultural teaching and ceremonial guidance. Elders work closely with the Indigenous offender to ensure they have opportunities to engage with their culture and history, including sacred fires, smudging, and sweat lodge ceremonies.

Elder Dalton has played this role for seven years, a role he loves.

“A lot of them are just starting, some of them have a lot of knowledge but have never really practiced ceremonies. Their attitude changes completely and they respect the culture all of a sudden. I always tell them our ways are always within them.”

Elder Dalton is able to relate to some of the challenges some offenders face, such as addictions, given his past role as an addictions’ worker. He employs the Seven Sacred Teachings, a set of guiding principles, to help them find healing and embark on a better path.

Elder Dalton finds it rewarding to know that he is helping to make a difference in the offenders’ journeys.

“One of the best gifts I give them here is pride.”

Indigenous Elder

Dan Ross

Rather than Elder, Dan Ross prefers the terms Knowledge Keeper or Spiritual Adviser to describe the work he does. He has spent 21 years at CSC, 18 of them working with Indigenous offenders in Kingston, Ontario.

He looks back on his experiences there as helping offenders release tension and learn to love themselves. As he says, they do not hear enough positivity and have experienced too much racism.

During his one-on-one sessions with offenders, Dan tried to drive home an important message:

“The Creator does not make garbage, so you are not garbage.”

Something as simple as telling them that they are good men is something Spiritual Adviser Dan feels will help them think about themselves and make changes. He also relied on the Seven Sacred Teachings, specifically love, to help them.

“They have to learn to love themselves. Nine and a half out of 10 of them hate themselves and that’s why they are in prison.”

These days, he plays a different role in the care and custody of Indigenous people from CSC’s National Headquarters. His extensive experience inside the walls working with offenders makes him a valuable resource to CSC staff working on new programming regarding its impact on Indigenous offenders. He feels that some of the recent changes at CSC are good, citing the end of administrative segregation and the development of SIUs where offenders can engage in programs.

While he is no longer in the institutions, he still receives calls from some of the people he helped. He is proud of his work with Indigenous people to help them make the changes they need to make towards rehabilitation. Looking back on his career trajectory he notes that he spent 42 years in the moving industry before getting involved in Indigenous corrections.

“I’m still moving people, but in a different way.”

To learn more about the Seven Sacred Teachings, please read: Seven Sacred Teachings significant addition to Structured Intervention Units programming.

To learn more about the work of Elders at CSC, please watch: Bringing the Grandchildren Home: Elders in Federal Correctional Facilities

Let's Talk

Let’s Talk is a publication of Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Let’s Talk shares stories new and old of the people and programs at CSC. These stories provide an engaging window into how CSC fulfills its mission of contributing to public safety and assisting in rehabilitation. Let’s Talk is your home for informative articles, podcasts, and videos about CSC.

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