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Christmas a lonely time for Inuit prisoners

Christmas can be lonely time for prisoners at southern penitentiaries and territorial correctional centres.


IQALUIT — For Inuit prison inmates living far away from family and friends in penitentiaries and correctional centres, just getting through Christmas is tough.

“There’s not one person who wants to be here,” said Guy Leblanc, the deputy warden at Yellowkife Correctional Centre. “Some inmates take it very hard.”

That’s why YCC celebrates the holiday season with “12 days of Christmas.”

Activities include Inuit games, a talent show, a concert by the Salvation Army, Christmas dinner and a feast “with every kind of country food available,” from char to muskox.

And elders set up a tent near the prison building where they serve tea, bannock, dry meat and provide comfort, as needed.

There’s even a popular hockey game that pits the staff against the inmates — who generally win.

During the holiday season, visiting hours are also increased and guests are welcomed to a special Christmas dinner. Those with families back in Nunavut may send greetings home on the radio, and, thanks to a special toy drive in Yellowknife, can mail presents home to their kids.

“We’re doing as much as we can,” Leblanc said. “We give every inmate a gift, too, from the administration, and at Christmas and New Year’s, the staff and inmates shake hands.”

During the holidays, inmates at the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit put on variety show and share a Christmas dinner open to families, too.

This year, the 25 inmates from other communities were able to send home video-taped greetings to their families and receive similarly taped messages in return.

But none of the 23 inmates from Nunavik spending the holiday season at St. Jerôme Detention Centre near Montreal are likely to have visitors, because this facility is too far away from home.

The staff at St. Jerôme say Inuit inmates go out of their way to volunteer over the holidays, greeting the families of their fellow inmates from the South when they come for visits.

Inmates from Nunavik were treated to a feast with country foods brought down directly from Kangirsuk by their program coordinator, Steve Lépine, and they received special permission to use their knives during this meal.

On the 24th, they’ll also have a Southern-style Christmas dinner and receive a small gift.

But there are fewer celebrations in store for inmates at federal penitentiaries. Nunavut’s federal inmates, 37 of them, serving sentences from seven to 12 years, are now at the Fenbrook institution in Gravenhurst, Ontario, two hours away from Toronto.

“Christmas, spring and summer are the hardest time of the year for them, especially the older ones,” said Inuit liaison officer Nipisha Bracken.

Nipisha, originally from Iqaluit, followed the Inuit inmates when they were transferred from Bowden Penitentiary in Red Deer, Alberta earlier this year, but while Bowden offered Inuit a full schedule of activities over the Christmas season, this year’s celebrations in Fenbrook are sketchy.

Pitseolak Ashevak and Okee Kunuk did come to Fenbrook recently, bringing along country foods, and South Baffin MLA Olayuk Akeshuk also visited the facility, but Nipisha said that no other special activities have been organized.

Nipisha said inmates particularly appreciate hearing from their families and friends and can receive messages at 705-684-4002.

“From myself, and all the Inuit, I wish you all a merry Christmas,” she said.

The problems of loneliness are much the same in the Maritimes, where Sarah Anala, an elder originally from Labrador, visits Labradormiut in institutions in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

At one pentitentiary, Anala organizes social gatherings with volunteers who either are from Labrador or used to live there, and at Christmas, there will even be a Moravian church service for the inmates. They’ll also be able to broadcast messages to Labrador.

Along with cards and calls from home, Anala said these efforts help deal with inmates’ homesickness for their family, friends and country foods.

“I also send them cards, with messages, in Inuttut,” Anala said. “I tell them, even within these four walls you can be freer in your mind and spirit.”

At La Macaza federal penitentiary, two hours from Montreal, 10 or so Nunavimmiut also find the holiday season hard, according to Anglican minister Doug Norquay, who visits them regularly.

“A lot of the guys are feeling very isolated,” he said. “It’s such a foreign environment.”

At this year’s Christmas service they’re planning on singing carols and reading lessons in Inuttitut as well as in English and French.

Rev. Norquay said that receiving mail gives inmates a real boost to their morale.

“Write to them. Send them cards,” he suggested. “Maybe that could be a project for the local churches. It’s a small gesture, but it means a lot.”

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