Artists moved by Kwìkwèxwelhp visit


Simon Fraser University graduate students Aaren Ivers and Vesna Maljkovic recently had an opportunity to visit Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, a minimum security institution in the community of Harrison Mills, B.C. Kwìkwèxwelhp is operated by the Correctional Service of Canada in close partnership with the Sts'ailes people.

Aaren and Vesna were so moved by the experience that they teamed up to create a short book called The Gift, which centres around the facility, the staff, the offenders and the surrounding community.

In the book, a fictional poem tells the story of two brothers from a nearby community whose parents can’t afford to buy them separate beds for the small room they share. The brothers learn about Kwìkwèxwelhp and the programs there, and are surprised one day with hand-carved bunk beds created by an offender and donated by the institution.

Here, in their own words, is the story of how Aaren and Vesna met, what they learned at Kwìkwèxwelhp, and why they made The Gift.

Aaren Ivers: SFU was offering a multi-disciplinary graduate class based on a series of speakers called “President's Dream Colloquium on Returning to the Teachings: Justice, Identity and Belonging.” Vesna is from the Faculty of Education, and I’m from the School of Criminology, and we met during this class.

Through this class we were invited to Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, which is a men’s federal prison for First Nation offenders that uses traditional teachings and cultural practices to help rehabilitate inmates while they are incarcerated.

I knew a bit about restorative justice practices at other stages of the criminal justice system, but I hadn’t read much about these principles in a correctional setting. I was aware that this sort of approach to corrections is definitely not the norm, and I was excited to see what this place was all about.

Vesna Maljkovic: Unfortunately, I was not able to attend at that time. Since I got deprived of experiencing this unique place firsthand, I depended on my colleagues’ description of the prison and, of course, their perspective.

Aaren: I was really impressed with the facility. After my visit, I was talking about what an interesting and promising model of corrections KHV was to anyone and everyone.

They are doing great work at Kwìkwèxwelhp, and I think it is a place that deserves a lot of attention. I couldn’t find any academic literature specific to the place, which is a real shame, because I think there’s real potential to address some prevalent correctional shortcomings using their methods and approaches to rehabilitation.

People have to understand that those found guilty of crimes rarely go to prison forever. Eventually they will return to the community, so warehousing inmates while they are in custody and ignoring the fact that the rehabilitation aspect of incarceration is lacking is very problematic.

Vesna: Many, if not all of my colleagues, were simply amazed by the village. They spoke of the men who were serving their sentences in such compassionate voices that made us all forget that we were talking about prison inmates often with serious crimes behind them.

They spoke of their gentleness, of their willingness to learn, to contribute to the society, of their remorsefulness. There was a healing aspect of the place that stories were projecting, and all of us in the room were feeling it. While telling their stories many of the speakers were crying, and many of the listeners were crying as well. I was trying to keep my composure, but it was hard at times.

Aaren: KHV had an environment conducive to self-betterment and eventual community integration. The prison itself felt like a strong, connected community. The men live in shared accommodations, and have a grocery budget, and are expected to prepare their own meals.

During the visit, they explained some of the various projects the residents are involved in that give back to the community.

A carver was talking about the Work to Give program, and mentioned they were carving beds to give to those in need from local reserves. That stuck with me. It was an offhand comment he had made, and he didn’t go into detail, but it made an impression on me, and my imagination took over.

I didn’t have any grand intentions when I wrote the poem, but I kept thinking about my visit and a poem seemed like a good medium to articulate my feelings in class. Vesna really liked it, and she offered to illustrate my poem, which brought the story to life.

Vesna: Her poem made such an impression on me that, when she finished reading, I had tears pouring down my face – I was deeply touched by the simplicity of her rhymes describing the depths of human nature, relationships, teachings, and two young brothers on a path to the complicated world of adulthood.

Being an artist and an art educator, my first impulse was to get involved and to help take this beautiful story further. I was afraid that if I don’t do something, the story will never get to see the light of day.

I was so inspired by these joyful words that I had the burning urge to create illustrations, to start drawing and painting right away. When I approached Aaren, she was terrific about the idea.

By the end of the term, the book was fully illustrated and proof printed to show our colleagues the final project. Since the feedback was very positive, Aaren and I have started exploring options for publishing the book ourselves and donating all the proceeds to the Kwìkwèxwelhp community – maybe the families of the residents, their children, or someone else in need.

Aaren: We gave a copy to the assistant warden, in appreciation of how the place had opened our minds, and the folks at KHV liked it as well. We were really touched that they liked it as much as they did, and we gave them permission to share it in whatever manner they wished.

When we had one of the initial drafts of the book done, I sent a copy to my Mom and she mentioned that, when I was a baby, I had a crib carved by inmates in a local prison. Obviously I didn’t remember being an infant, but I did remember the wooden crib she was talking about. When she brought it up, the idea did not sound completely foreign to me, so I think that memory was buried in my subconscious. That probably influenced me writing the initial poem.

Vesna: The evening of the final ceremony of the colloquium, we were introduced to Claude Demers, the assistant warden, who liked our work. He took the time and effort to bring it to the warden, Marie Cossette, whose reaction was positive.

Aaren: After the book was done, the folks at KHV invited Vesna and I back, and of course we jumped at the opportunity. We were surprised during a ceremony we were attending with gifts of blankets and carvings.

It was a really wonderful experience, and I felt both undeserving and incredibly honoured. KHV is a wonderful community, and I hope lots of people hear about what they are doing there.

In addition, I hope people who read The Gift get a sense of how new approaches to offender rehabilitation can benefit both offenders, and the communities they will eventually return to.

We would like to thank the staff and residents at Kwìkwèxwelhp for inviting our class to visit - and special thanks to Dr. Brenda Morrison, who facilitated the visit.

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