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Patti Pettigrew, founder and Executive Director of the Thunder Woman healing Lodge Society, at the Society’s offices in Toronto, on Oct 11.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto-based Indigenous non-profit is close to cancelling plans to build Ontario’s first Indigenous healing lodge owing to funding shortfalls, a potential setback to the Trudeau government’s objective of expanding the country’s network of Indigenous-run correctional facilities.

Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society says it’s $2-million short of the total needed to construct a seven-storey residential complex that would house federally sentenced women.

Correctional healing lodges, where residents participate in Indigenous-led ceremonies, classes and therapy, have been found to reduce rates of reoffending. Indigenous people make up one out of every three federal prisoners, but there are just six Indigenous-run healing lodges in the country – and none in B.C., Ontario, the Atlantic provinces or the territories.

Thunder Woman successfully raised roughly $20-million to build the facility in suburban east end Toronto but spiralling construction costs have pushed the project’s budget far higher than anticipated.

Healing lodges help reduce Indigenous overincarceration. Why has Canada allowed them to wither?

The group has asked the project’s primary funder, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., to help make up the shortfall, with little success.

“I’ve told them quite clearly that if they cannot increase their funding by $2-million, this project is done, it’s over,” said Patti Pettigrew, founder and executive director of Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society.

Thunder Woman has tried to reduce its construction costs, deleting a basement from the blueprints and shrinking the seventh floor. It has also raised additional funds with support from the City of Toronto and a number of Indigenous partners. “But we have gone back to CMHC and CMHC has consistently declined to dig into their pockets any further than they already have,” said Claire Brewster, a consultant with Thunder Woman.

A CMHC spokesperson confirmed that the Crown corporation is working with Thunder Woman, but declined to provide any further details, citing confidentiality. He did acknowledge that rising costs have put a strain on such projects.

“The situation and trends in rising construction costs are being closely monitored as it is making the construction of new housing and the repair of existing housing more expensive across Canada,” said spokesperson David Harris.

Scrapping the building would end Ms. Pettigrew’s long-held vision to create Ontario’s first correctional healing lodge and test the federal government’s stated commitment to build more of the facilities.

The concept of a correctional healing lodge emerged in the late 1980s as a way of addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in federal prison and reducing recidivism. The first lodges appeared in the mid-1990s, legislated into existence by Section 81 of Corrections and Conditional Release Act passed under the Mulroney government.

The idea was simple but radical for a correctional system often accused of rigid adherence to the status quo: Contract out correctional services for Indigenous people to Indigenous groups.

The first lodges were found to reduce re-offence rates. One Correctional Service of Canada report from 2001 boasted a 6-per-cent recidivism rate for healing lodges, compared to a national rate of 11 per cent for all offenders in CSC custody. The same year, CSC said it was negotiating to establish more than 20 lodges.

Two decades later, there are just six Indigenous-run healing lodges with a total of 189 beds – or roughly one bed for every 21 Indigenous people in federal prison.

Another four healing lodges remain under CSC management, with no set schedule for handing them over to Indigenous ownership, as originally intended.

In successive mandate letters, the Trudeau government has directed the CSC to strike more Section 81 agreements with Indigenous groups across the country. Since the Trudeau government came to power, however, just one additional Indigenous-run healing lodge has been established, Eagle Women’s Healing Lodge in Winnipeg.

“Healing lodges need to be vastly increased in number,” said federal prisons ombudsman Ivan Zinger. “And CSC needs to reallocate a significant portion of its budget to fund those sorts of initiatives.”

Despite the government directive, Ms. Pettigrew said establishing Thunder Woman has been onerous.

She came up with the idea more than 10 years ago while working for the Elizabeth Fry Society, a group advocating for women and non-binary people caught up in the criminal justice system, and realizing Toronto lacked housing options for Indigenous women transitioning from prison to the community. While the City of Toronto and an array of Indigenous organizations have supported the project at every turn, she said the federal government has been more reluctant.

“They definitely weren’t eager to support this project,” she said. “I don’t think they believed I’d really pull this off.”

Under Section 81, CSC fund healing lodge beds on a per diem basis. Ms. Pettigrew said that during negotiations, she asked CSC for a per diem of $225 for each resident, but eventually settled on $180. The average daily cost for prisoners across all CSC institutions is $330. “They just tried to nickel and dime us to death,” she said.

The two sides have yet to finalize a Section 81 agreement, she added.

CSC did not provide comment.

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