The 1992 Corrections and Conditional Release
Act contains provisions which require the Correctional Service
of Canada to "provide programs designed particularly to address the needs
of Aboriginal offenders" (section 80). The Act
also authorizes the Solicitor General to enter into agreements with Aboriginal
communities to provide correctional services to Aboriginal offenders (section
81); it mandates the establishment of a National Aboriginal Advisory Committee
and permits the creation of regional and local advisory committees to
advise CSC on the provision of correctional services to Aboriginal offenders
(section 82). Section 83 provides that:
(1) For greater certainty, Aboriginal spirituality
and Aboriginal spiritual leaders and elders have the same status as other
religions and other religious leaders.
(2) The service shall take all reasonable steps to make available to Aboriginal
inmates the services of an Aboriginal spiritual leader or elder.
Legislating respect and recognition is one thing; its achievement in
the reality of everyday prison life is another. But the warden of Matsqui,
Roger Brock, was committed throughout his tenure to translating law into
operational practice, and he lent his full support to a variety of Aboriginal
initiatives. One of those initiatives was a series of escorted temporary-absence
passes that enabled Aboriginal prisoners to make a one-day journey, accompanied
by correctional staff, for the purpose of gathering lava rock and plant
materials for use in the sweat lodge and other Aboriginal ceremonies within
the prison. Lava rock, because it does not crack under the heat of the
sweat lodge fire, is a prized resource. On August 19, 1993, four members
of the Native Brotherhood, Dennis Bigsky, John Ironchild, Cory Bitternose,
and Cheam Nanaquetung, left Matsqui on one of these passes. They were
escorted by two staff members: Jill Hummerstone, a non-Aboriginal Native
liaison worker, and Ken Poirier, a correctional supervisor of Metis descent.
I accompanied the group and chronicled the remarkable events of that day.
We left the institution shortly after 7:00 a.m. in two vehicles, an
eight-passenger van normally used by the Emergency Response Team and a
dump truck in which the lava rock was to be brought back. We headed down
Highway 1, crossing over the Fraser River on the Agassiz road until we
got to the Seabird Island Reserve, where we stopped to buy tobacco. The
tobacco would be used as a reciprocal offering for the lava rock, sagebrush,
yarrow, and willow gathered later in the day. I asked the Brothers when
they had last been on the street; the periods ranged from nine months
to over two years.
After leaving the reserve, we drove along the Trans-Canada Highway through
Hope and into the Fraser Canyon. Of the group, only John Ironchild was
from British Columbia, and the other three prisoners had never been through
the canyon. At Hell's Gate we stopped to look down at the awesome sight
of the Fraser exploding through the constricted river channel. I recounted
the history of Hell's Gate: the landslide in 1914 during the construction
of the railway that turned the river into a raging torrent; how as a result,
until the construction of the fish ladders in 1946, the upriver First
Nations fishers were deprived of access to salmon at their traditional
fishing stations; how this had given rise to arrangements between the
upriver and the downriver First Nations that permitted the upriver fishers
to fish at stations in the lower canyon, an example of First Nations'
treaties of economic co-operation. All of this was completely new to the
three Brothers from the prairies, and in this way the journey began to
take on the character of both cultural and geographical discovery.
From Hell's Gate we drove to Lillooet. On the way, Jill Hummerstone
pointed out several areas with extensive sagebrush that we could gather
on the way back for use in Aboriginal ceremonies. Several miles north
of Lillooet we turned off onto the gravel road to Bridge River. From the
turn-off we could look down to where the Fraser narrows into a series
of canyons with literally hundreds of fishing camps dotting the banks
of the river, proclaiming the First Nations presence in this territory.
The camps were shielded by brightly coloured tarps to protect people from
the intense sun and drying fish from the rain. I shared with the Brothers
the history of the Lillooet peoples' resistance to efforts by the Department
of Fisheries to restrict Aboriginal fisheries to compensate for over-fishing
by the commercial fleet.
The Fraser and the tarps of the fish camps grew smaller as the vista
of river canyon, alpine benches, and mountain peaks grew larger. Cory
Bitternose and Cheam Nanaquetung, the youngest of the Brothers, exclaimed
they had never seen anything like this, that it was quite beyond anything
they had anticipated as part of their day of freedom from the routine
of prison life. Their smiles grew wider and wider, matching the broadening
horizon thousands of feet below them.
Around 1:30 we arrived at the area where the lava rock was to be collected.
The site had originally been pointed out on a trip several months earlier
by a Lillooet Elder, and the gathering of rock was done with the permission
of the Lillooet Nation. Dennis Bigsky and the other Brothers climbed up
the rock face, and Dennis placed strings of tobacco ties in the rocks
as an offering, together with a prayer, to acknowledge that what was being
taken from the earth would be treated with respect.
After the men returned to the road, Ken Poirier moved the dump truck
closer to the rock face. While the Brothers and Ken loaded the lava rock,
I took an axe and split wood for the fire we needed for our lunch of hot
dogs. The work of gathering the lava rock was shared equally between the
Brothers and Ken as they formed a chain, passing pieces of rock from one
to the other. To a stranger passing by, the sight of five men hefting
rocks along a line into a truck against the backdrop of a grey cliff face
might have evoked the harsh scene of a prison chain gang in the American
Deep South. However, the reality behind this picture illustrated the difference
the Matsqui Aboriginal spiritual program brought to the experience of
imprisonment. The Brothers, through their physical labour, were providing
the raw material for sweat lodges, not only for the use of their Brothers
inside Matsqui Institution but also for Brothers imprisoned in other institutions
across Canada. Jill and Ken, the two staff escorts, had been invited to
attend an Aboriginal Programs conference in Saskatchewan and had agreed
to drive their own vehicles the fifteen hundred miles in order to take
some of the lava rock to prisoners in Saskatchewan Penitentiary. The prisoners
at Matsqui Institution, by making this gift to their Saskatchewan Brothers,
would be physically and symbolically acknowledging the common experience
of all Brothers in prison and their shared search along the Red Road.
That contribution and sharing would be made possible with the direct assistance
of these correctional officers, who, both metaphorically and literally,
would be part of that Red Road.
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