Grand Chief Garrison Settee with Knowledge Keeper Shannon Buck at the Women’s Correctional Centre.

“In our culture, our women, our sisters are sacred. You have an energy and a power that we don’t have as men.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee recently had the opportunity to sit in sharing circles with women incarcerated at the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley, Manitoba. He addressed the women from the heart and spent much of his day listening to the stories shared by the 20 women (and some staff) who attended the circles.

Women living on site prepared the food the Grand Chief had for lunch and he enjoyed taking a tour of the correctional centre and speaking to people in various areas—stopping to talk with some women in their cells, women working in the kitchen, and staff working throughout the building.

The Grand Chief continues to spend time with First Nations citizens incarcerated at federal and provincial correctional facilities. His next visit to Stony Mountain (Manitoba’s large, old federal penitentiary) is in June 2022. He recently wrapped up a series of sharing circles at both the Women’s Correctional Centre and the Headingley Correctional Centre. He has visited Headingley twice in the last six months.

He continues to advocate for justice at multiple levels, including the grassroots. As some leaders say, you cannot advocate for a group of people if you do not spend time with them.

A part of the Grand Chief’s goal in visiting the correctional centres is to provide hope to MKO citizens serving their sentences, along with hearing from and meeting the staff who are working with those who are incarcerated. It is an opportunity to hear firsthand from MKO people and staff about some of their concerns and what’s working well for them.

Eighty-Five Percent of Women in the Women’s Correctional Centre are Indigenous

“One choice you can make is: choose not to be ordinary. Choose to be extraordinary! You are unique,” shared Grand Chief Settee. “You have gifts.”

Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented within the jail system. Due to multiple system failures at all levels of society, Indigenous people are deeply entrenched within the justice system. Some people note that correctional centres are the new residential school system.

At the Women’s Correctional Centre, about 85 percent of the people living there are Indigenous.

The Women’s Correctional Centre is much newer and modern than any of the three correctional centres the Grand Chief has visited so far. Opened “only” 10 years ago in 2012, this institution is located just west of Winnipeg in Headingley, Manitoba.

It has capacity for 295 women with about 170 women currently in the space. Interestingly, this facility is for women who have sentences of less than two years.

There is no capacity for women in Manitoba who are serving federal sentences. For sentences over two years, they go to Edmonton.

It has been said that there is access to better services federally, however, if you get sent to Edmonton, you get disconnected from your children in Manitoba.

Sharing Circles are a Safe Space

In the sharing circle, the stories shared are kept confidential, so while we cannot share the women’s stories today, it is clear that correctional centres are often the first place where people are learning about their First Nations identity. Elders and Knowledge Keepers play a key role in facilitating cultural programs and ceremonies. They also build solid helping relationships with the women incarcerated in the system.

Shannon Buck has been one of the trusted Elders for the women at the Women’s Correctional Centre. MKO Grand Chief was honoured to spend her final day of work at the centre with her in a circle—she is moving onto another facility after six years working with the Women’s Correctional Centre.

She offered a beautiful drum song for the women and attendees of the circle, and the space was a good opportunity for people to tell her what her work had meant to them over the years as women recovering their identities, strength, and power.

The Importance of Cultural Reclamation

It is clear that the reclamation of culture is helpful to the women serving their sentences. Many of them are mothers and grandmothers with hopes of being in their communities to they can be supports to their families and First Nations. The women have dreams and appreciate programs such as the Nobody’s Perfect Parenting Program and the Medicine Bear Program.

Many of the women expressed their appreciation for the Grand Chief coming to visit with them. There were many women who would have liked to have the visit but time was a limiting factor. The staff remarked that this was a special visit as it was the first time that such an Indigenous leader had visited the centre.

Grand Chief Settee shared teachings about how a sharing circle works with the women, explaining:

“This is a very safe space. In this circle, there is no one better, there is no one less… we are all equal.

In this circle, I leave my title outside of this circle.

The reason why I am here, is to hear you. To hear where you are from, to hear your story, to hear your goals in life.

I represent 26 First Nations and we have at least 73,000 First Nations citizens. I have been in this role for almost four years and I have visited all of the First Nations. I made it a point to be with our people. I’ve gone to all of them, I fly in with a chopper sometimes because there are no roads.

After we have done that, I said, there are still our citizens out there that we have not been able to reach. They are the ones that are in institutions such as this, such as Stony Mountain.

This is my first time in this particular being in this institution. I said to my colleagues, those people are our people. They deserve to be remembered and they deserve recognition. Because you have rights. You have Indigenous rights, you have Treaty rights.

I wanted to spend time with you, to remind you that we have not forgotten about you.

As my sisters and my relatives, some of you may be mothers here. I know that being an Indigenous woman… our Indigenous women have gone through a lot. Our organization has really been pushing on addressing issues around murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.”

The Grand Chief listened to the stories of the women who want to share. He laughed and witnessed both pain and joy from the women. He heard from people who have goals and witnessed deep insights from many of the people living in this space. He saw his niece and was able to tell her he loved her and was able to give her a hug.

The lifting of COVID-19 restrictions has made visits to the women much more possible. The Grand Chief thanks them for sharing their stories and time with him on May 6, 2022.

The Grand Chief also acknowledges Mike Pierre, Coordinator for Spiritual Caregivers for Manitoba Justice along with his staff. Mr. Pierre has been accompanying Grand Chief on his visits to the correctional centres and he will continue to do so. The Grand Chief thanks him for sharing his insights and his time.

Grand Chief Settee Reflects on the Impact of the Visit

“I am quite thankful to have the opportunity to visit First Nations citizens in correctional facilities. I will continue to do this and will take what I learn to try to make shifts in the justice system. I’d like to address the ongoing overrepresentation of our people in these systems. I am concerned about the issues of mental health and addictions to meth and how these intersect with the issue of justice.

Ekosi to all the women who took time to share with me during my visit to the Women’s Correctional Centre.

We know the abuse our people have suffered due to residential schools causes ongoing harm and continues to impact our people across all our communities and generations. We continue to be deeply impacted by colonization.

As we move forward on a healing path, I believe our people can overcome the impact the abuse has had on us. We will become stronger as First Nations. I hope to see the people I meet in these centres fully rehabilitate and heal and return as leaders to our MKO First Nations. It is my hope my visits will encourage difficult conversations that need to be had about incarceration and restorative justice.”