Amy Pilon (photo by David Stobbe)

A home for healthy healing

Andrea—not her real name—has lived a hard life. Physically abused as a child, she struggled with addictions for years and got into trouble with the law.

By Federica Giannelli
After spending some time in jail, she ended up in a healing lodge.

"Buffalo Sage Wellness House gave me support," the 31-year-old First Nations woman said. "It taught me how to express my feelings and how to deal with people in the community."

Now, she is reintegrated into mainstream life with a job, friends and a dream to go to university one day.

University of Saskatchewan psychology master's student Amy Pilon interviewed Andrea and 39 other women at Buffalo Sage Wellness House in Edmonton. The healing lodge is one of eight managed by Correctional Service Canada, and one of only two for women, the other being in Maple Creek, Sask.

Healing lodges are minimum security institutions where people are offered a personalized rehabilitation program based on Aboriginal culture and spirituality. While receiving programs and training, they work with elders and the larger Aboriginal community.

Pilon wanted to learn how the facility and programs can be improved to help the women become more successful after release.

Pilon, who has a Métis background herself, thinks healing lodges could change the way society rehabilitates women. Penitentiaries may not be the best way to reintegrate female Aboriginal offenders into society, she says.

"Healing lodges are less dehumanizing places than prisons. The women said it feels like family to be there."

More than half the Aboriginal women in Canadian prisons usually return behind bars, but Pilon found that the recidivism rate is much lower at Buffalo Sage.

Of the 40 women she interviewed who were released from Buffalo Sage since 2010, only 10 returned to custody and only one of them was re-arrested for new charges, she said. The others committed minor violations, such as breaking curfew.

"We believe that their increased confidence is key for the women's long-term success," said Stephen Wormith, Pilon's supervisor.

It costs less than $90,000 a year to house a female offender in a healing lodge, compared to $211,618 per person for women in regular federal prisons, he said.

Lodges have been around since the 1990s, but little research has been done on their operation and success at rehabilitating offenders, particularly women.

Recent criminal justice research recommends that correctional programs and services consider the offenders' personal and ethnic backgrounds in order to be most effective, Wormith said.

The number of Aboriginal women in Canadian prisons grew by a staggering 97 per cent from 2002 to 2012, according to a 2014 study by the federal justice department.

"Trying to solve this overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples keeps me driving forward," Pilon said. "Being Métis myself, I feel I can help."

Correctional Service Canada, the federal research agency SSHRC, and the U of S Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies provided funding for Pilon's research.


Article written by Federica Giannelli, a graduate student intern in the U of S research profile and impact unit. This article first ran as part of the 2015 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.