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location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 3 / Chapter 3 The Disciplinary Process at Kent / November and December 1994: The Sweat Lodge Incident -- An Issue of Discipline or Reconciliation?

Several other prisoners sought to make further comments but Mr. Fox said that he had heard enough evidence for one week and he proposed to adjourn the hearing until the following week to hear from some of the other witnesses. After the prisoners had left Mr. Fox asked Officer Wallin and Unit Manager Cawsey, who had come into the courtroom, whether it was appropriate to deal with this issue as a disciplinary one. Mr. Cawsey replied that he viewed this as a power play by the Brotherhood and particularly by several members who were not even Aboriginal. Unit Manager Dewar, who had also come into the court room at the conclusion of the proceedings, informed Mr. Fox that the administration was involved in a series of meetings to deal with issues affecting Aboriginal prisoners and that there was a meeting scheduled that very afternoon with the executive of the general population Brotherhood.

That meeting between the administration and the Brotherhood convened at 3:00 p.m. in the offices of the Unit managers. In attendance were Mr. Dewar, Officer Wallin, Mr. Johnson, Mr. OíMeara and Mr. Gallant. Also at the meeting was Tom Lassiter, an aboriginal correctional officer at Kent, who was introduced by Mr. Dewar as an Elder and a spiritual person. Mr. Lassiter had been a correctional officer for over 20 years and was a guard at the B.C. Penitentiary. Earlier in the day when I had spoken with Mr. Dewar, he told me that he intended to invite Mr. Lassiter to advise him on issues of spirituality so that he would know whether or not the Brotherhood was properly invoking spirituality, as opposed to simply playing power politics. Shortly after the meeting started Roland Leon, the institutional Elder, and Rita Leon, the Native Liaison Worker, joined the meeting.

The Brotherhood reviewed what had happened on Saturday, November 5, and that the insistence by the staff that the Brothers vacate the sweat lodge was not in accord with past practice over the last year and a half, whatever might be stated in the memo of July 1992. Mr. Dewar and Officer Wallin responded that so far as they were concerned, the memo stated the established policy and they were not aware of any deviation from it. Mr. Dewar admitted, however, that he did not work on weekends and therefore had no personal experience of what happened on Saturdays at the sweat lodge. Officer Wallin also conceded that he had no personal knowledge.

Mr. Johnson explained the problem caused by requiring the Brothers to leave the sweat lodge at 12:00. In the first place, it meant that the fire was left unattended and under the spiritual teachings they had learned, the fire was not to be left until the ceremony was finished. To do so was a sacrilege. Furthermore, by 12:00 the Brothers would only have done two rounds (a full sweat usually involves four rounds -- a round being the process of building up a sweat by pouring water onto heated rocks); returning to their cells at that point would require that they get dressed and the ceremony would be interrupted by at least 30 to 45 minutes. "It would be as if during a Catholic marriage ceremony the priest in the middle suddenly said, ĎIím going to interrupt the ceremony, I have to go outside and have a smoke.í" At this point Mr. Johnson sought and obtained Mr. Lassiterís confirmation that it would be improper for the Brothers to leave the sweat lodge halfway through the ceremony.

Mr. Dewar said that he had spoken to the Elder from William Head Institution and had been told that the practice there was to require prisoners to go in for the count, but to allow one prisoner to remain as the Keeper of the fire. He proposed that this practice be adopted at Kent, while the policy of July 1992 was being reviewed. He was not prepared, however, to change the policy before that review was completed. Mr. Lassiter, while confirming that this was the policy at William Head, pointed that the count there was different from the 1200 count at Kent and involved a much shorter interruption in the continuity of the sweat lodge. Mr. Lassiter also used this opportunity to talk about the importance of the sweat lodge and of the teachings which were an integral part of it.

Mr. Johnson concluded his comments by saying that what had happened on November 5 was a real setback. While he and the executive had been encouraging the Brothers to open up communication with the administration, all they had to show for it was six prisoners, including the executive, being charged for refusing to violate their spiritual trust and leave the sweat lodge. It was going to be a hard sell for them to maintain their credibility with the other Brothers, but he was glad that this meeting had taken place at last and he felt that it was a good start.

Although nothing was resolved at this meeting beyond Mr. Dewarís agreement to allow one prisoner to remain in the sweat lodge during the count to tend the fire, the meeting ended on a very positive tone with a mutual agreement to have further meetings both in which to review the existing written policy of July 1992 and to discuss other outstanding matters.

By comparison with the disciplinary hearing earlier in the day, the afternoon meeting was much more constructive and enabled the Brothers to more effectively express both their understanding of the history behind this incident and some of the underlying dynamics which were interfering with the fulfilment of Aboriginal aspirations. As Warren Johnson stated at the end of the meeting, "This was a good beginning" but on the journey towards full respect for the rights of Aboriginal prisoners Kent still had a long way to travel.

In the week following the first hearing of the sweat lodge cases there was a discussion between Mr. Fox and Officer Wallin regarding the future conduct of these cases. An agreement was reached that they were to be conducted as individual hearings, not as a group trial. Officer Wallin had security concerns about having six prisoners in the room at the same time (although based upon the first hearing nothing happened at all to raise those concerns in terms of the prisonersí behaviour). For his part, Mr. Fox had concerns in assessing the evidence in the context of each particular prisonerís case, since a number of them had raised defences which were specific to them.

When the hearings resumed on November 22, Mr. Fox told Officer Wallin that, having thought about the matter, he proposed to go ahead with separate hearings, and it was important to have Officer Wilkinson present at each hearing to answer further questions in relation to each particular prisonerís case. Officer Wilkinson was not available until December 7 and Mr. Fox determined that would be the day to which he would adjourn all the cases.

Four of the sweat lodge cases were dealt with on December 7. Officer Wilkinson was required to repeat his evidence on four separate occasions, endeavouring with each repetition to maintain some sense of spontaneity. Two of the prisoners were acquitted when Mr. Fox accepted their evidence that because of their distance from Mr. Wilkinson they did not hear him order the prisoners to leave the sweat lodge area; two other prisoners were convicted where Mr. Fox found that these prisoners had heard Mr. Wilkinsonís order. However, in those cases because he also found that the issue involved a religious activity and the prisoners had conducted themselves in a passive manner, without displaying any overt hostility towards the staff, it was appropriate that a warning be issued, which was the lightest punishment that could be imposed.

Mr. Johnsonís charge was finally disposed of on December 13. Mr. Fox stated that he was satisfied that Mr. Johnson had heard Officer Wilkinsonís statements because the officer, in his evidence, had been clear that he had addressed his comments specifically to Mr. Johnson, including the statement that he was to "consider that an order." He therefore found Mr. Johnson guilty, but issued a warning for the same reasons as he had given in the other cases.

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