A cultural awakening is surging within Alberta's prison walls as Natives practice spiritual ceremonies within.
But once prisoners are released there is no support program to help them continue building their spiritual awareness which many claim helps them stay on the straight path.
This concern prompted the Native Brotherhood Society in Edmonton to organize a support group to establish a program that will continue offering spiritual guidance through Elders and such ceremonies as sweats to those just leaving penal institutions.
Representatives from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Drumheller chapter of the Native Brotherhood Society showed their support for the program at a meeting held at the Canadian Native Friendship Centre in Edmonton on Feb. 7.
Most of the discussion focused around the problems that former Native inmates face and alternative solutions to help them once they're out of prison.
Al Smoke organized the Native Brotherhood support group in 1986 following his release from prison after serving a 10-year sentence. "When I got out of prison, I saw our people eating out of garbage cans and freezing out in the cold."
According to Smoke, although Native prisoners are gaining traditional values from Elders and the support they get in jail, none of the halfway houses or rehabilitation programs being offered to ex-inmates by the government include these values. He adds that hurdles, in the form of probation orders, stand in the way of practising spiritual ceremonies. "It's hard for these guys to try see their Elders because they're restricted from leaving town or staying out overnight" while they're on parole or living in a halfway house.
The ex-inmates withdraw from everyday life because they don't have anyone with whom to relate their spiritual feelings. "You end up sitting around doing nothing and you become your own jailer," says Smoke.
He adds the penal system doesn't prepare prisoners for the outside world and in some cases "guys are thrown out on the streets with 50 bucks and expected to make it without any support. Two weeks later, they're right back in jail . . . the system isn't working."
The support group has been meeting randomly for the past year, gathering support from Elders. Smoke explains the 15-member group plans to pull their financial resources together and find a house where they will invite Elders to stay with them on a regular basis.
Kehewin Elder Norbert Jeabeux expressed his support for the group and such a house. In a telephone interview, Jeabeux reasoned "there is a need for something like this" and to those cut off from their Elders by prisons or halfway houses he says, "I always stress discipline within the mind."
Harold Burden of the Canadian Human Rights Commission also showed his support for the group at the meeting. Burden said he would be willing to help the group by acting as a middleman for interested parties that want to contact the Native Brotherhood support group (call 424-4040).
An alcohol and drug abuse treatment centre near Edmonton, Poundmaker Lodge, is sometimes used by ex-inmates, says Poundmaker treatment coordinator Carl Quinn, adding some prisoners are sent to Poundmaker by the penal system to finish their sentences with treatment. And, although the lodge emphasizes cultural values, client stays are limited to about one month.
Smoke says his support program will be an ongoing self-help group that ex-inmates can utilize for as long as they want.
"This group is going to happen as long as we get the support of our Elders," he concludes.