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Although Aboriginal peoples did not traditionally have the institution of imprisonment in their conceptual or architectural landscapes, they have, more than any other group in Canada, experienced its impact. Comprising less than 2 per cent of Canada's population, they make up 13 per cent of its federal prison population. In 1988, in a study prepared for the Canadian Bar Association, I wrote:

Prison has become for young Native men the promise of a just society which high school and college represents for the rest of us. Placing this in a historical context, the prison has become for many young Native people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents. (Canadian Bar Association Committee on Imprisonment and Release, Locking up Natives in Canada by Michael Jackson [Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association, 1988]. Reprinted in [1989] 23 U.B.C. Law Review 215. See also Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Bridging the Cultural Divide: A Report on Aboriginal People and Criminal Justice in Canada [Ottawa: Canada Communications Group, 1996].)

In 1999 the Supreme Court of Canada cited this passage in the Gladue case, stating, "These findings cry out for recognition of the magnitude and gravity of the problem and for responses to alleviate it. The figures are stark and reflect what may fairly be termed a crisis in the Canadian criminal justice system" ( R. v. Gladue, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 688 at para. 64).

Over the past twenty-five years, Aboriginal prisoners have become increasingly critical of the lack of recognition by correctional authorities of the distinctive cluster of problems facing them and of the irrelevance to them of many correctional programs. In 1983, members of the Native Brotherhood at Kent Institution went on a hunger strike, maintaining that they had the right to practise their spirituality, including participation in spiritual and healing ceremonies, and that this was both an existing Aboriginal right under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and a right of freedom of religion protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Beyond these arguments, they maintained that practising culturally relevant ceremonies directed to healing was more appropriate in their journey towards rehabilitation and reintegration into the community than programs that lacked Aboriginal cultural or spiritual content.

In the years that followed, the Red Road and Aboriginal spirituality became increasingly powerful influences in the lives of many Aboriginal prisoners, who discovered, often for the first time, a sense of identity, self-worth and community. Because the path must be taught by those who have special knowledge and who are respected for their spiritual strength and wisdom, the practice of Aboriginal spirituality requires that prisoners communicate with Elders drawn from outside the prison. Some prisoners, by virtue of prior training or the training they undergo in prison, are able to lead certain ceremonies and provide spiritual counselling to other prisoners. There has developed, therefore, a continuum in which those who are more experienced in spiritual ways are able to help those less experienced. From this a sense of community emerges, based not on the common element of criminality or membership in a gang but rather on the search for spiritual truth. In place of the alienation that prison typically engenders, Aboriginal prisoners are able to experience a sense of belonging and sharing in a set of indigenous values. Aboriginal spirituality therefore provides prisoners with constructive links not only to each other but with Aboriginal people outside of prison and with their collective heritage. Charting a path along the Red Road is seen by many Aboriginal people, both inside and outside the prison, as an important element in dealing with problems of alcohol and drug dependency, violence, and other forms of anti-social behaviour (James Waldram, The Way of the Pipe: Aboriginal Spirituality and Symbolic Healing in Canadian Prisons [Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997]).

However, the distinctiveness of Aboriginal spirituality and the historical undermining of Aboriginal cultures have made it difficult for non-Aboriginal correctional staff to accord these spiritual ways due respect. Although there are Aboriginal men and women who have special training, powers, and responsibilities in spiritual matters, they are not distinguished by clerical collars or degrees from schools of divinity. Although Aboriginal spirituality has its own ceremonies and rituals, these are unfamiliar to both Western and Eastern religious orthodoxy. While there are places of special spiritual significance for Aboriginal peoples in North America, cathedrals, churches, and temples of worship were not part of Aboriginal physical architecture.

In the context of the prison system, the ceremony of the sacred pipe and the sweat lodge are two of the distinctive ways in which Aboriginal prisoners have sought to express their traditions. The sacred pipe ceremony, common to many Aboriginal nations, represents the unifying bonds of the Aboriginal ethos. Through smoking the pipe within a ritual circle, the prayers of Aboriginal supplicants rise with the smoke and mingle with all living creatures. The Great Spirit evoked by the pipe enters and connects Aboriginal people with all their relations in the living world. The different materials used in the ceremony -- sweetgrass, sagebrush, red willow, and cedar bark -- all have symbolic importance. In the same way, the use of eagle feathers in these ceremonies is integrally related to matters of the spirit. The sweat lodge ceremony, like the pipe, is widely distributed across Aboriginal cultural and geographic lines and is primarily an act of ritual purification. Each component of the sweat lodge structure symbolizes the elemental forces of the universe and the cycles of nature.

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Sweat Lodge at Matsqui Institution. The 2005-6 Report of the Correctional Investigator highlights the continuing and accelerating over-representation of Aboriginal persons in Canada’s federal institutions. See News Post