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No spiritual elders for jailed Mi'kmaq warriors

Province lags behind federal programming, may be breaking Canadian Charter

by Miles Howe

Germaine Breau and Aaron Francis have received all of one visit from an indigenous spiritual elder. [Photo: Terry Freedman]
Germaine Breau and Aaron Francis have received all of one visit from an indigenous spiritual elder. [Photo: Terry Freedman]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – The spiritual health of Germaine (Junior) Breau and Aaron Francis, the two members of the Mi'kmaq Warriors Society who have been incarcerated since the RCMP raided the anti-shale gas encampment along highway 134 on October 17th, appears to be of little concern to the New Brunswick department of Public Safety, Communities and Correctional Services.

The two men are currently jailed at the provincially-run Southeast Regional Correctional Center (SRCC), located in Shediac, New Brunswick. There Breau and Francis await their trial dates, which are scheduled between mid-March and early April, 2014.

The SRCC has a paid chaplain on staff. It is unclear whether the chaplain is of the 'new age', multi-faith variety, or whether they serve devout Christians only.

Whatever the case, Suzanne Patles, who has visited Breau on numerous occasions during his months-long incarceration, relates that he has made “over a dozen requests” for an indigenous spiritual elder.

Breau and Francis have only received one visit in over three months.

When I called the SRCC asking why they hadn't honoured Breau's request to pray with an indigenous spiritual elder, at first Deputy Superintendent John Cann refused to discuss the particulars of any one inmates' case. Which, of course, is reasonable.

But Cann then let it be known that the SRCC is always looking for “new volunteers” of the spiritual persuasion.

“Spiritual advisors of any faith are welcome on a volunteer basis,” says Cann. “We don't have a spiritual elder from the native community that would be willing to come in on a volunteer basis at the moment.”

This is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, it suggests that Breau's current spiritual languishing is likely only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Breau is a high profile inmate, due to the international attention that the months-long anti-shale gas protests in Kent County, New Brunswick, garnered. Patles is also social media savvy and has developed networks on a variety of platforms. So while Breau's refused requests for a spiritual elder, understandably championed by Patles, has received attention via social media, it is likely that the spiritual requests of other indigenous prisoners at the SRCC have also gone unanswered and unpublicized.

Secondly, in choosing to financially support a chaplain and not support religious programming not fulfilled by a chaplain, the New Brunswick government may have disregarded Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which notes that freedom of conscience and religion is a fundamental freedom in Canada.

Despite the sometimes obvious attempts by the New Brunswick government to run the province like a private fiefdom, it does remain, for the moment, part of The Dominion. Meaning that the Charter still applies.

If Breau and Francis were stationed in, say, maximum security Renous, New Brunswick, their spiritual needs would be regulated by the federal department of Correctional Services. And their situation would be far more comfortable, spiritually at least.

At the federal level a variety of documents are currently being developed to address the spiritual needs of the disproportionate number of incarcerated indigenous peoples in Canada. Amongst these is the 'Commissioner's Directive' policy on Aboriginal Offenders, which falls under the Safe Streets and Communities Act.

If one is to resign to the notion of prisons, the 'directive' is a relatively forward thinking document. Amongst other mandates, it notes that the institution head (read: superintendent) will:

“Ensure that Elders/Spiritual Advisors are afforded the same status as Chaplains...(and) ensure offenders are provided with the services of an Elder/Spiritual Advisor, in consultation with the Regional Administrator, Aboriginal Initiatives.”

Of course, this does not apply to provincially-run penitentiaries.

Another interesting document is the 2000 'National Overview of Programs, Services and Issues Related to Aboriginal Offenders.' Amongst other things, the overview is a 'show all', where provinces highlight what measures they have taken within their own justice systems, including their penitentiaries, to serve the unique needs – including spiritual – of Aboriginal offenders.

New Brunswick, however, appears to have no indigenous specific programs in place within its prisons.

Noel Milliea, from Elsipogtog First Nation, has received a variety of training from both federal and New Brunswick provincial correctional departments. He's seen the inside of both federal and provincial prisons within New Brunswick, providing spiritual guidance to indigenous inmates in both milieus. To Milliea, there's a clear difference to the spiritual services he offers and a definite benefit to those who receive it.

“Most of the time what I'd typically do with Aboriginal offenders is have a smudge and a prayer with them,” says Milliea. “I'd take the group, usually a unit at a time, and we'd have a smudge and a prayer and usually have a little bit of a talk about how things are, what are some of the main concerns that they're having, what are some of the things that they're worried about. Some of them are there for the first time and are scared shitless over what's happening. We have an opportunity to share a little bit, and bring a bit of peace to them.”

New Brunswick falling flat on providing its indigenous inmates with access to spiritual services is not only a potential infraction of the Canadian Charter. On an individual level, to Patles, it risks making inmates such as Breau into angrier individuals than they need be.

“It seems as though they're denying them the ability to pray this way so that they could have them angered, so that they can justify these men being dangerous or violent or angry,” says Patles.

“If you think about what this is doing to them psychologically, they need an avenue to heal themselves. If the prison system and the correctional system is set up for healing people who have done wrong, why are they continually abrogating and negating these peoples' rights and denying them the right to heal?”

Milliea sees the plight of incarcerated indigenous peoples as being a completely unique experience. He notes that in the vast majority of cases their incarceration is related to drug and/or alcohol abuse, and that a stay in prison is often a sobering moment.

“What if we say: 'It's not so much about the addictions,'” says Milliea. “What if we say: 'Why does the person drink and do drugs in the first place?' Now we're starting to get into more of the social issues that our people have to deal with in Aboriginal communities. Could it be family violence, or trauma-based issues that they haven't healed from? That they're just numbing some of the pain as a coping skill to deal with the realities?

“When they end up in the institution, whether it be federal or provincial, all of a sudden they're sober and they have to deal with this. They have to look at it, and that's when they usually ask for guidance. And a lot of the times they turn to native spirituality. It's sad to say that a lot of our people get the chance to experience native spirituality for the first time under these circumstances, while in prison.”

As for Breau's dishonoured requests, which likely represent many, many more dishonoured requests, a social media campaign is calling for action on a variety of angles. Campaigns are urging people to call the SRCC and contact the New Brunswick Ombudsman.

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