Healing centre for inmates tries to live down checkered past

Can traditions cure criminals?

By JANE GEORGE

KUGLUKTUK – By making ulus, ice fishing, storytelling or cooking up caribou stew for supper, inmates at the Ilavut Healing Centre are supposed to learn how to live more constructively.

When they leave the centre, these men will have the tools they need to obey the law and stay out of jail, Ilavut's staff say.

Kugluktuk's Ilavut is the first territorial jail outside Iqaluit. Its goal is to use Inuit language, culture and traditions to rehabilitate male offenders.

But since its opening two years ago, Ilavut has been more notable for its failures than its successes. These include the former centre director's arrest for aggravated assault in 2005, and the escape of two men last year from Ilavut.

On one occasion, a convicted child sex-abuser left the centre and remained on the lam for hours. Another resident stuffed his sheets with blankets to fool staff into thinking that he asleep and made off into the night.

The two escapees were found quickly. But Ilavut is making sure these kinds of incidents never happen again, says the centre's new director, Pauline Plamondon. Staff have received more training and inmates are now even more carefully selected.

In Ilavut's defense, Plamondon says it's not easy to fine-tune a community-based facility which has no role models in the territory.

"We're just babies and we're getting growing pains," she says.

As is the case at other minimum-security correctional centres in Canada, the front door at Ilavut isn't locked. Inside, parkas and boots fill the entranceway, just like at home.

"Please don't call Ilavut a jail," Plamondon says, who always refers to Ilavut's inmates as residents.

Once this building served as the Department of Transport office. Ilavut now fills this narrow space with offices, a living and dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, storage areas and a den stocked with a computer and board games. A series of completed jigsaw puzzles hang on the wall as decorations.

The sleeping quarters are designed for 16 to 20 residents, but only four to eight residents have been at Ilavut recently. The centre hasn't been able to operate anywhere near capacity because the bunk beds usually used in jails don't fit into the rooms. This means instead of four residents per room, there have only been a maximum of two.

Ilavut's population has also been low due to concern over fire safety. When the sprinkler system is fixed, and new bunk beds arrive, more residents will follow, says Plamondon.

On this morning, all is quiet in the centre. Two residents are in the half-renovated workshop outside where they are fitting boards together for a shelving unit. The others have been shoveling snow around town. Some residents hold part-time jobs in the community.

Constructive activities fill almost the entire day.

In May, Lena Pedersen returned to Kugluktuk from Yellowknife, where she was an addictions counsellor and corrections advisor, to start a new healing program at Ilavut.

She plans a full schedule for the six-day-a-week program, which has residents learning how to make tools, go out on the land, cook meals, be better parents and tell stories.

Through the program, she hopes they'll learn to better manage their time, their money – and their anger.

Program attendance is compulsory and the schedule carries a warning that reads "refusing to participate will have consequences."

Pederson, who exudes cheerful enthusiasm, also serves as an older role model for the residents. Pedersen moved in 1959 from Greenland, where she was born in 1940, to the Northwest Territories.

In 1970, Pedersen became the first woman and the first Inuk woman to be elected to the Northwest Territories Council, as the legislative assembly was then known, where she represented the Central Arctic as an territorial councillor until 1975.

She's now one of 10 full-time and nine part-time employees at Ilavut, which operates on a 24-7 schedule.

Before coming to Ilavut to finish their sentences, the residents were at either the Baffin Correctional Centre or Yellowknife Correctional Centre, far from their families. While Ilavut is supposed to serve all of Nunavut, nearly every resident to date has come from the Kitikmeot region.

To be eligible, they need to demonstrate they have a "willingness to change." As well, they must undergo a personal interview with an Ilavut caseworker and complete a 30-day detox program.

Periodic drug tests are conducted to make sure residents comply with Ilavut's no drug or booze regime. Good behavior earns temporary passes to visit families.

Family involvement is essential for these men to heal, and they have a lot to heal from, Plamondon says.

In the 1950s and 1960s, children in the Kitikmeot were shipped off to residential schools for years – Plamondon, now 53, left her family when she was only five. Back home, parents struggled to deal with the loss of their dog teams and the influx of southerners into the region.

Assimilating to a new culture and ways left a huge hole, says Plamondon. It left younger people teetering on the edge with little guidance and facing few consequences for their actions. In the past, there were harsh consequences for errors.

"If you wanted to survive, you had to follow the rules," Plamondon says. "People forgot they still have to follow these traditional laws."

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