Stan LaPierre points to the chair I’m sitting on. “That,” he says “is where hundreds of aboriginal youth in custody sit and tell me their secrets.” He strongly believes that disclosing the pain of the past to someone you trust is healing. LaPierre is a traditional elder and Co-ordinator of Aboriginal Spiritual Care at MYS (Manitoba Youth Service) — the largest residential youth correctional center in the province of Manitoba based in Winnipeg.
He is an inspirational mentor, a much needed father figure or Mishomis (grandfather) and a spiritual counsellor who administers sacred Aboriginal traditions through smudging and cleansing ceremonies to the young people incarcerated here. “I have heard thousands of secrets of sexual abuse, witnessed so much grieving from these young people” he says.
“They sit in this chair and they start to heal because they are prepared to talk. They need to free themselves if they’re going to have the energy to do something with their life.”
LaPierre’s task is to bring Aboriginal culture — the healing methods and stories of identity — to all the prisons of Manitoba. For most young people the traditions of their ancestors have been lost due to a stain on Canadian history, one that the world knows too little about and which most Canadians seem reluctant to confront. Perhaps this is out of shame for their past or perhaps because these First Nation people (4 percent of the population and 23 percent of the incarcerated — in Manitoba 16 percent of the
population and 71 percent of the incarcerated). The Aboriginal population of Canada also has a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse, and many of the young suffer from FASD (fetal alcohol syndrome disease).
LaPierre has his own story. His father abandoned the family when he was a young child and he was brought up by a mother who didn’t know how to parent. He himself spent time in prison for drunk-driving though he’s been sober now for 30 years. His mother was a Roman Catholic brought up in a religion that belonged to others. What happened to the indigenous people of Canada is what some have called cultural genocide — the policy “to take the Indianness out of the Indian‘. “Our jails are just filled with its legacy” laments LaPierre.
It started in the 19th Century with Aboriginals being consigned to reserves (specified land where they had to remain) after which for six generations many children were scooped from their homes to reside in government-funded, church-run schools set up to eliminate parental involvement. Sacred ceremonies were outlawed, Aboriginals were told that their traditional practices were devil-worship, children were beaten for speaking their own language and people were prohibited from discussing politics in groups of more than four. In 1981 when LaPierre heard the sound of drums his soul stirred — “I realized there had been a void in me. I was returning to my culture.” Ever since he has been helping young people discover their spiritual and cultural roots.
I am in Canada having been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling fellowship — a unique and privileged opportunity to travel overseas to bring back knowledge and best practice for the benefit of others. My mission is to look at restorative justice practises within the penal system but I hadn’t expected to find the plight of the indigenous people of Canada at the root of every discussion I have.
Not far from MAS in a neighbouring district of Winnipeg the Aboriginal organisation Onashowewin shines another light within this dark history. The staff here provide diversion interventions focused on repairing damage. It is a culturally based program, holistic in nature with a focus on individuals assuming responsibility for their actions. The mission is also to help ensure their clients are treated equitably. With Aboriginals so over represented in the justice system this is a massive task.
One staff member tells me of his own personal experience of being removed from his home to a residential school. Now, aged 39 the scars of growing up around people who didn’t care live on. “You learn to cope but there’s a feeling constantly of being out of place,” he says.
“When you see your own people you feel angry and don’t know why. I was lucky I got some breaks, some healing but the anger is always there. It’s like a fire.”
His healing is about accepting rather than mending because, as he explains, “you can’t put something back that wasn’t there. I have learnt to acknowledge what happened to me and use it.”
Onashowewin’s Executive Director, Cora Morgan, believes the residential schools have created a nation of dispossessed. Her clients may have committed crimes, but they are also victims of tragedy and trauma.
“The effects of the residential schools have filtered down through generations” she says. “Because people were raised in institutions they don’t have parenting skills, many lack the ability to care. And now the government try to get people to assimilate into mainstream society when they have had nowhere to belong and have been taught that their culture is wrong.”
There has been some attempt to make amends. In 2008 the Canadian Prime Minister made a public apology. Some people were comforted by it but it changed nothing. There is also a Truth and Reconciliation Commission currently going round the country, taking statements from residential school survivors with a mandate to learn the truth and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools.
Before leaving Winnipeg, Stan LaPierre hands me a book about Aboriginal culture. I feel bad I haven’t bought him a gift in return, but he expects nothing. “We’re generous people”, he chuckles, “look at how we gave all of Canada away.”