Buffalo Sage Wellness Centre offers a unique correctional environment. The downtown Edmonton facility, run by the Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), is the only Indigenous community-run healing lodge that’s open to women offenders.
Healing lodges like Buffalo Sage are known as “Section 81 healing lodges,” referring to the section of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that allows CSC to transfer an offender from one of our institutions to an Indigenous community which provides correctional services. The NCSA believes that Section 81 healing lodges like Buffalo Sage contribute to the reconciliation process by addressing the effects of historic trauma on Indigenous people in Canada.
Buffalo Sage’s Executive Director Clare Carefoot has worked at the facility for seven years, since the day it opened its doors to 16 women in September 2010. Today, she is excited about the future of Buffalo Sage, following the recent expansion which allows them to house 28 women. It’s clear that Carefoot cares deeply about this unique correctional centre and its inmates. “These women are the strongest women that I know,” she said. “They have all been through so much. I am sure that if it were me I would not have survived the abuse that most of these women have encountered.”
At Buffalo Sage, the NCSA-designed Spirit of a Warrior program addresses anger and rage within people who have been abused and in particular, people who have suffered from historical trauma. The facility offers a variety of programs that are culturally relevant to Indigenous offenders. “We believe in order for people to live Pimatisiwin (the good life) we must live by the seven teachings: Humility, Respect, Honesty, Self-determination, Kindness, Sharing and Caring,” Carefoot explains. “We live that concept here at Buffalo Sage and we work closely with our Elder, Vicky. We have our own Sweat Lodge out at Enoch, which is a Reserve on the edge of the city. We also have our own Sweat Lodge Ceremony at least every two weeks.”
Carefoot doesn’t work alone. “We only have four full-time living unit officers, however, we have 13 part-time people who work shifts and do escorts. We have one parole officer, one program officer, one Elder, one clerk and one living unit supervisor. We work closely with Mustard Seed and Elizabeth Fry and have numerous people who volunteer to take the women on escorts.”
It’s a lengthy process for women to transfer to Buffalo Sage. Carefoot works with an Aboriginal Liaison Officer in CSC institutions to invite women to apply for a transfer. A screening process including interviews takes place and ultimately the decision on the application is made by the Warden of the institution.
When asked how offenders benefit from the healing lodge model, Carefoot points to the many ways Buffalo Sage helps its residents. “We provide parenting courses, money management courses, grief and loss programs and we have a tutor come in once a week to help the women with upgrading their education. We watch the women come in here and they are usually hurting and very distrustful and we watch them blossom after a few weeks.” Carefoot points out that Buffalo Sage’s location in downtown Edmonton has its advantages: it is close to bus routes, downtown employment, the University of Alberta and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, which helps in upgrading the women’s skills that lead to employability. “We feel it is our job to help them with their healing and to see if we can give them the kind of programming or educational and work skills that will help them to get good jobs back in their communities so they can look after their children once again.”
Indeed, Buffalo Sage also helps offenders to maintain relationships with their children. “We have a mother-child program here, so we have children who live here and some who visit on weekends,” Carefoot explains. “All the women have children somewhere, so it helps them to have children around, and it also helps to keep the house clean. We just say to the women ‘if you use drugs or alcohol here, we will lose the children. We cannot have drugs around them.’ They all seem to understand and respect that. We believe in Wahkohowin (relationships between all things). We have to help each other as women and look after one another.”
“They just survive somehow,” Carefoot says, impressed by the strength of the women at Buffalo Sage, despite their often incredibly difficult life experiences. Carefoot is hopeful that their lives can go in a more positive direction once they leave the facility.