Ryan Montour knows firsthand how intimidating it can be to face the community after being released from prison.
“This is the hardest place in Canada to be on parole,” Montour once told the federal government.
The official was surprised, knowing the abundance of services and assistance offered in Kahnawake. “Can you explain?” they asked.
“Yeah,” Montour said. “There’s a thousand eyes on us here.”
In February 2013, Montour was released to a halfway house in Montreal, nearly two years after a fatal car crash when he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, leading him to plead guilty to dangerous operation of a vehicle and impaired driving causing the death of Tony’s Pizza deliveryman Erick Bertrand.
Seven months after his release to a halfway house, he was back in town, working hard to find his place after everything had changed for him. He returned under Section 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which permits federal inmates to be released on parole in an Indigenous community.
Montour credits his successful reintegration in part to a Section 84 program run by Kahnawake, which has an agreement in place with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) under the release law.
“Without this system, I’m not in this position where I’m sitting right now,” said Montour, now a Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief.
He benefitted from the program’s relationships with services in Kahnawake, especially the traditional healing he received at the Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS) Family and Wellness Centre, also known as the Kahnawake Healing Lodge. Montour calls it the House of Pain.
He is among about 45 Kahnawa’kehró:non who have gone through the program since it began in 2016. Of those, only one has reoffended.
Yet despite the overwhelming success of the program, it exists only for those sentenced to at least two years in jail. Anyone sentenced to less than that is a provincial inmate, and when they are released on probation, public safety officials in Kahnawake can’t do much to help. In fact, they don’t even know who’s on a probation order here. They only know there are around 24 of them at any given time.
That’s why Kahnawake is in negotiations with Quebec to strike a deal under Section 31 of the Act Respecting the Quebec Correctional System, with the goal of inking an agreement by April 1 that would see the community assume a vastly expanded role in reintegration.
“It’s a step in acquiring additional authority and jurisdiction, and that’s the direction we’ve been building with the whole file,” said Lloyd Phillips, Kahnawake’s public safety commissioner.
As for negotiations, he said the goal is to forge a mutual understanding of how things will work between Kahnawake and Quebec. “And it’s also about dollars,” he said, referring to the need for more funding.
“There is a desire on both sides to reach an agreement to ensure that follow-up services in the community are adapted to members of the Kahnawake community,” said Louise Quintin, a spokesperson for Quebec’s public safety ministry.
Creating a reintegration program for those serving provincial sentences could not only make the community safer by bringing people on probation orders out into the open, but it could also result in fewer Kahnawa’kehró:non ending up in prison for breaking conditions or reoffending, according to Jo-Ann Stacey, community offender reintegration supervisor at the MCK Public Safety Unit.
“That’s the hope,” she said.
Indigenous adults represent nearly 30 percent of those who are admitted to the provincial or territorial corrections systems across Canada, despite representing less than five percent of the population, according to Statistics Canada.
“There’s just too many Native people in prison. Even the government realizes it,” said Stacey. She feels confident that progress will be made quickly on Kahnawake’s efforts to strike a deal.
“For Kahnawake, it’s a major step forward because we’re not judged by outside belief systems,” she said.
She noted that without culturally-sensitive supervision, parole and probation officers can fail to understand how life on the reserve can differ from life elsewhere.
“It’s the cultural differences that really make a big difference, just the little idiosyncrasies that are different here on the rez,” said Stacey.
For example, she said, if someone gets paid in cash in Kahnawake, that’s just how they’re paid. Elsewhere, it’s an under the table job – it’s something illegal.
“We’ve had to do a lot of educating with corrections and a lot of explaining how things work here and how it’s a lot different from the outside world in many different aspects,” said Stacey.
While a recent countrywide rule change means parolees in Kahnawake again have to work with a Longueuil parole officer – something MCK hopes to change – the community aims to have its own probation officers for provincial offenders.
Liaising with the parole officer is just one of many responsibilities Stacey has when it comes to the federal Section 84 program that provides a framework for reintegrating provincial offenders.
When a Kahnawa’kehró:non is handed a federal prison sentence, Stacey meets the inmate to discuss their Section 84 rights, although at this point, with so much on the person’s mind, the nitty gritty of making the request might not sink in.
It’s a long process – the inmate needs to write a letter, and then if they sign off, Stacey will have access to their file. This will provide an indication of what kinds of services they may need.
Stacey will also meet with the person’s family to see how they might be an asset in the reintegration process.
“I’m not working with just the inmate,” said Stacey. “I’m working with the spouse, I’m working with the parents, I’m working with the children. It depends on each individual because it’s very different from person to person.”
She will bring back what she learns to the Section 84 committee, which includes 14 people from different kinds of organizations.
The committee members apply to attend the inmate’s parole hearing, where they may participate and explain the reintegration plan, which will vary depending on the person’s needs.
At this point, six months before a third of the sentence has been served, the inmate can be released to St. Leonard’s House in Montreal, close to the Mercier Bridge, for day parole.
Kahnawake has a longstanding relationship with the halfway house, which even has a seat on the Section 84 committee.
“As a community, I feel like they’re very organized in terms of the services they offer,” said Merris Centomo, general director of Maison Cross Roads, which operates St. Leonard’s.
“I couldn’t give you a number in terms of stats, but it has a huge impact. The parolee is supported in any way possible.” She noted that Kahnawake ensures the community’s involvement in a way that helps protect the parolee from falling into bad patterns.
Whereas outside the community, parolees have little support in terms of accessing the services they need to meet their conditions, in Kahnawake robust efforts are made to address a client’s needs. This could include education, anger management training, addictions or mental health counselling, and other measures.
“We look at the whole picture, not just the individual. It’s a holistic support system,” said Stacey.
“It’s not easy to reintegrate into the community. Oftentimes there’s a lot of stigma, shame that comes around with that,” said Nancy Worth, clinical supervisor of addictions services at KSCS.
“Oftentimes there’s been either substance abuse issues or mental health issues that have contributed to that incarceration in some way,” said Worth.
The organization has a seat on the Section 84 committee that helps fulfill reintegration plans, ensuring the appropriate involvement of the social services organization.
“We all have this intergenerational trauma. We all have issues that fall from that,” said Montour.
“I think it’s important that a successful parole integration program is in place,” added the MCK chief, who leads the public safety portfolio and is part of the group negotiating for a provincial agreement.
“There’s more to life than painted bricks and bars. If people could see that they’re hurting inside and there are reasons why we’re violent, reasons why we consume alcohol and drugs, there are reasons why we’re angry – there are so many reasons why,” said Montour.
“Prison is the end result of something else.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.