Elder Vulnerability within CSC

A Summary of Discussions with Elders, Recommendations and Action Plans


As part of the Aboriginal Continuum of Care, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) contracts Indigenous Elders to work with the Indigenous men and women who are under the care and custody of the Service. Elders are considered to be invaluable resources within CSC in providing counselling, ceremony, teachings and guidance to offenders who are following (and staff who are working within) a traditional healing path.

Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the Canadian correctional system; 1 in 4 men in federal custody is Indigenous, and 1 in 3 women in federal custody is Indigenous. Most of these Indigenous offenders have long histories of foster care, residential schooling, substance abuse issues or dysfunctional families, and may know little about themselves or the history of Indigenous people. Most have not been taught the basic values and foundational teachings of their culture. The Elder's role within CSC is to share the basic teachings that they know, and promote healing through ceremony, counselling and guidance to assist Indigenous offenders in changing their lives. Elders have expressed that while there are challenges in working in a prison setting, the work they do is very rewarding.

In 2000, the National Aboriginal Advisory Committee (NAAC) was established to provide advice to CSC on correctional policies and practices particularly related to reintegration of Indigenous offenders. Guided by Section 82 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, NAAC members have shared expertise on issues such as northern community strategies, cultural awareness training, nationhood, electronic monitoring, aftercare and employment needs in the community for Indigenous offenders. Shortly after the creation of the NAAC, the National Elders Working Group (NEWG) was created to advise the Director General (DG), Aboriginal Initiatives Directorate (AID) on spiritual, traditional and cultural protocols and practices as well as to provide recommendations on policy, procedures and interventions impacting Indigenous offenders. In order for CSC to have a holistic understanding of the needs of the Indigenous offender population, advisory bodies such as the NAAC and the NEWG, and experts in Indigenous culture (Elders) are paramount. Through these resources, the Service's ability to address its priority of ensuring effective, culturally appropriate interventions and reintegration support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders is strengthened.


There are currently approximately 120 Elders who are working within CSC's institutions across Canada. Senior, more experienced Elders guide less experienced Elders on policy and spiritual protocols for Indigenous offenders, share their experiences working in a correctional environment, provided rationale for historical discussions, and together, make recommendations regarding policy, practice and services within CSC. Elders have expressed a difficulty in sharing a national vision for spiritual and ceremonial integrity, as well as an overall national approach to Elder services across the country due to the fact that they feel a loss of connectivity to one another. Previously, National Elders Gatherings took place and created an opportunity for sharing and networking to create a national approach to Elder services across the country. Due to fiscal restraint, the last National Elders Gathering was held in May 2010. Now, in 2017, approximately half of the Elders contracted by CSC have never been to a gathering of this kind nor have they ever been a part of this type of national discussion. The result is that Elders have little contact with other Elders outside of their worksite and this has caused many Elders to feel isolated or marginalized.

Indigenous culture values face to face interactions, circle discussions, networking and sharing of stories, experiences and history as key in passing on teachings and guidance to others. Due to the vast area covered by CSC's institutions and the huge distances separating CSC's contracted Elders, these opportunities are often not available. Additionally, with technological changes to process and policy, many Elders who work within traditional frameworks are reporting great difficulty in understanding the bureaucratic contracting process. Furthermore, the correctional environment itself has been identified as a challenge for Elders, as difficult situations can arise when traditional and ceremonial requirements need to fit within national security policies.

The concerns of the Elders across Canada were raised by two NAAC members during a meeting in Alberta in 2014. As a result, the Commissioner of CSC requested these two NAAC members lead a national sub-committee on Elder Vulnerability. This NAAC meeting was pivotal as it served as an opportunity to begin to address the issue of providing national support to CSC's Elders. Since then, CSC has remained committed to supporting the valuable role that Elders play in the lives of the Indigenous men and women offenders in federal custody.

Summary of Concerns

Elders developed areas of concern which led to their feelings of vulnerability. These concerns have been outlined below.

Treatment, Respect and Trust

Lack of understanding of traditional protocol and ceremony was one of the most critical gaps identified by Elders as leading them to feel vulnerable. As well, Elders expressed concern that spiritual and cultural protocols are not honoured. Additionally, Elders stated that many newly contracted Elders, may deal with situations of perceived mistrust, mistreatment or disrespect in different ways than more experienced, senior Elders may. Most Elders have never had the experience of working in a correctional environment. The perception that there is a lack of mentorship and access to more experienced Elders within the Service who may be able to provide guidance to help with integration into the correctional environment leads the Elder to feeling further isolated.

Elders also reported that they lack understanding of their own role within CSC stating that they are often not sure where they fit in or who they should report to. Furthermore, Elders felt that there were systemic barriers that lead them to feel a general sense of exclusion.

Traditional Role (and the Contracting Process)

Elders expressed that the impact of an Elder's traditional role in terms of not only changing behavior but in changing values and beliefs is not well understood by many within the correctional environment. An Elder has a unique relationship with an offender, and is often the one person in the institution with the most contact with that offender. Their perspective on the work the offender has done, the progress they have made, and the impact of these changes on risk is critical. Inclusion of the Elder is essential to a fully comprehensive Aboriginal Social History, Correctional Plan, and progress report for Indigenous offenders. Elders have a highly revered status in the Indigenous community and contribute holistically to the wellness of community members.

As well, Elders felt that they are not given access to the information necessary for them to understand the Government of Canada contracting process fully. The language in contracts is deemed to be complex and bureaucratic which often leads to Elders experiencing difficulty in understanding completely, resulting in Elders feeling insecure.

Spiritual and Cultural Identity

Elders feel that the use of tobacco in traditional Indigenous ceremonies and/or offerings and the need for an open fire are not well understood by CSC staff. These effects and protocols are non-negotiable for most Elders as they are critical, necessary elements of traditional activities in Indigenous culture. Furthermore, time constraints applied to ceremonies by CSC staff were identified as contributing to an overall sense of a lack of cultural awareness. In these situations, Elders stated that they do not know what their rights are or who to talk to about their concerns, making them feel isolated and vulnerable.

Elder Suggested Recommendations and Action Plans

The Elders who were consulted during the development of the Elder Vulnerability Paper provided five recommendations in addressing the gap identified with respect to Elder Vulnerability within CSC. An action plan to address each recommendation was also provided by the Elders, along with identified short-, medium- and long-term timeframes for completion of deliverables, as listed below.

Recommendation 1:
Revitalizing a National Vision and a National Understanding of the Role of Elders
Timeframe Action Plan
Short-Term NEWG to finalize their discussions with Elders by meeting with the Council of Regional Elders in the Prairies. Consideration should and could be given to meeting with the Elders in each of the three corridors, in collaboration with gathering that could be planned in future by the Prairie Region.
Medium-Term Encourage the Regional Deputy Commissioners (RDC) in each region to plan Regional Gatherings with their Elders to discuss mechanisms for improving support, consistency in approach, and addressing Elder vulnerability. At the same time, seeking Elders' council on how best to engage and support Elders in the future so that Indigenous offenders continue to benefit from the teachings and guidance of Elders.
Establish Regional Councils of Elders that are representative of the different First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups in the region, taking into consideration both male and female Elders, that would be accountable to the RDC or the Assistant Deputy Commissioner, Integrated Services. These could be linked to the NEWG and/or NAAC.
Long-Term CSC to consider, when resources allow, a national Gathering of Elders, and Indigenous staff in designated positions (ALOs, Pathways staff, etc.) to come together to recommit to a national vision for Indigenous Corrections.
Recommendation 2:
Reinforcing National Consistency and Creating a Common Approach to Engaging Elders
Timeframe Action Plan
Short-Term National Headquarters (NHQ) to review the Statement of Work (SOW) for Elders, and develop one common SOW, a set of guidelines for engaging Elders, contracting Elders, and for monitoring (reporting and evaluation) that is utilized by all regions.
NHQ to provide national oversight of contracts (Contracting, AID), to ensure that Elders are treated fairly and respectfully, and consistently.
Medium-Term Work with Elders (NEWG, Regional Elder Councils) to establish a respectful process to identifying, engaging, and selecting Elders that respects traditional approaches, as well as contracting protocols, and simplify the contract renewal process for Elders who have been providing services over a number of years.
Long-Term Explore different approaches to contracting for the future for Elders. These could include the establishment of regional or national structures (i.e., Regional Councils linked to the NEWG), a process similar to the one established with Chaplaincy for a separate entity to be established to manage Elder contracts (regionally and/or nationally), or a completely different approach not yet articulated.
Recommendation 3:
Increasing Respect for Elders within the Institutional Environment
Timeframe Action Plan
Short-Term Establish monthly (at a minimum) meetings between the Elder and the Warden at each site so that the Elder has direct access to the Warden.
Invite the Elder to morning management meetings; ensure that Indigenous Corrections is an agenda item at management meetings.
Promote face to face case conferencing between Elders and the case management teams for offenders that the Elder(s) are working with on a regular basis, particularly around Pathways.
Medium-Term Provide more training to management on Aboriginal Social History, on the Aboriginal Continuum of Care, on the impact of ceremonies and Elder teachings on the values and beliefs of offenders, and on the role of Elders in Indigenous communities (protocols, respect).
Long-Term Develop training (a module) that is included in all CSC training regarding the Aboriginal Continuum of Care, Aboriginal Social History, and the impact of the work of Elders with offenders – particularly in the area of case management.
Recommendation 4:
Preparing Elders for Work within CSC Institutions
Timeframe Action Plan
Short-Term All new Elders should be paired with an Elder who has been with CSC ideally for at least 3 years, and shadow that Elder for a month.
New Elders should work in institutional services first, to be able to understand what services are provided, and get to know the environment, before they work in Pathways or in Programs. Elders are Elders, and they provide the same services, but different skills are utilized and different approaches. The institutional services are the core services, and all Elders should get to know these services first.
Elders should be provided with an orientation to their contract, to the expectations, to security considerations, and to relevant policies (CD-259, CD-702, etc.,) prior to beginning work within an institutional environment.
Medium-Term AID should revise the Orientation Manual that was developed some years ago, in consultation with Elders, and staff.
Long-Term All Elders should be provided with this Orientation within the next two years, once approved. From then forward, all new Elders should be provided with the Orientation.
Recommendation 5:
Spiritual and Cultural Integrity
Timeframe Action Plan
Short-Term Reinforce the expectations in CD-259, and the SO-259, and ensure that Elders have access to these and understand that, in particular, they are able to utilize all medicines for ceremony, do pipe ceremonies, and that there must be a process for offenders to provide tobacco offerings. There should be consequences for staff who do not respect these policies. Elders should not feel forced to eliminate tobacco from their ceremonies (even commercial), if they feel it is required.
Establish a monitoring process to ensure that sites continue to comply.
Medium-Term Ensure that training on CD-259 and SO-259, as well as CD-702 is part of all correctional officer training. This may require development of a module, and potentially training for all existing correctional officers, over a period of time.
Long-Term Establish an Elders' Council specifically pulled together when required, of Elders representing different ceremonies and protocols (i.e., Sweat, Longhouse, Inuit) to address matters of spiritual and ceremonial integrity, when issues arise within institutions. These should be Elders who are well respected and known in the community, and who have worked within CSC for a significant period of time. Community Elders may also be considered to ensure that CSC remains credible in the community.


Elders play a critical role in the healing of Indigenous individuals and communities. CSC has a strong partnership with Elders, to ensure that Indigenous offenders have an opportunity to engage in their culture and spirituality, heal, and reintegrate as contributing members of their families and communities. CSC requires this partnership and is committed to ensuring that Elders are respected and valued for the work that they do. Recognizing that Elders are the experts in the area of spiritual, cultural and traditional matters will increase CSC's ability to retain Elders and gain respect from the Indigenous community.

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