Once an Inmate Now an Elder, Mi’kmaw Sweat Lodge Brings Healing to Prisoners

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About 30 years ago, Toby Condo was an inmate starting a sentence at the Springhill Institution in northern Nova Scotia. Today, the man works there as an Indigenous elder.

Condo, of the Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, is a Mi’kmaw sweat lodge-keeper who provides cultural and spiritual advice to inmates at the prison.

Using conventional ceremony and sacred medicine, Condo helps treat mental health issues, addiction, and trauma, among, native and foreign inmates.

Condo knows sweat lodges are the perfect method of overcoming these obstacles because he said they saved his life.

“I overdosed so many times, and this ceremony gave me back my identity, made me proud to be who I was,” Condo, 49, said in an interview.

He was approached 5 years ago and asked to bring sweat lodges and sacred medicine, a deeply spiritual ceremony that’s deeply rooted to many Indigenous cultures, to the medium-security prison.

Condo normally leads sweats once per week on a dedicated location on the prison grounds. Before the coronavirus pandemic, up to 25 men could take part in every ceremony. Since then, the number has been reduced to five at a time.

He first experienced a sweat lodge during his rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addiction at a treatment center on the Elsipogtog First Nation, around an hour north of Moncton, N.B., in the mid-2000s. The condo was on high doses of methadone and had not slept or eaten for days when he quit cold turkey and started to pray.

Condo said he has now been sober for more 10 years, thanks to the sweat lodge.

Inside the lodge

The sweat lodge happens in a small curved structure made of branches and covered with layers of fabric, tarps, or blankets.

The interior of the structure is totally dark with a tiny bit in the middle. During the ceremony, heated lava rocks aka Grandfathers are placed in the pit, and water is poured on top to heat the area as individuals pray, sing, and drum traditional songs.

“It represents the womb of Mother Earth,” Condo said. “And when we go in there, we’re her children.”

He believes whether an individual is native or not, the sweat lodge can have profound effects on them. Condo said after a couple of sweats, many inmates report they are sleeping better and feeling less aggressive, and even introverts start to pray out loud.

“Once they start doing the ceremony, they find their identity, they get a sense of pride of being who they are,” Condo said.

“I find the sweat lodge is the best. I’ve done many of the programs, I can facilitate programs, I’ve done them all. But the sweat lodge is the one that works for everybody that I know.”

Improving access to culturally relevant correctional programming and employing more Indigenous workers are one of the recommendations contained in the most recent report from federal correctional investigator Ivan Zinger.

His January 2020 report showed that Indigenous persons continue to be overrepresented in the federal correctional system, making up about 5% of the population in the country, however, surpassing 30% of all inmates in Canada’s prisons.

Intergenerational healing

Corey Guy of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, said he discovered his identity as an Indigenous person whereas incarcerated at the former Halifax Correctional Centre towards the end of the 90s.

He said back then, it was a lot harder to access Indigenous medicine or ceremony within the prison system, however, learning about conventional culture from others led him to take part in a spiritual gathering when he was freed.

“After those four days, 22 years later, I haven’t had a drop of alcohol or any types of drugs in my system since. So that’s the power of it,” said the now 46-year-old Guy.

Since then, Guy has kept ceremony in his daily life living in Sask. He believes it is crucial to passing this knowledge on to his daughter and took her to her first sweat when she was only a year old.

“I think [these ceremonies] are going to break down some of the barriers that we have. We’ve got to kind of end that generational trauma,” Guy said.

“That’s the kind of thing that can be done with any kind of ceremony and prayer, learning the language, anything like that, learning songs. These all help break that cycle.”

A last resort

Shane Ballard additionally used the sweat lodge to stop drug use when nothing else was working.

Originally from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the man had been using a variety of drugs since his early adolescence years and had been in and out of many treatment programs.

When finishing a one-year stint at Alcare Place, a long-term treatment center in Halifax for young men with addictions, Ballard’s counselor brought him to his first sweat.

It was part of the Seven Sparks program for Indigenous inmates, started in 2009 by the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Center in Halifax. The program was spearheaded by the late Emmet Peters, an elder from the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish County.

As a non-Indigenous individual, Ballard stated that he felt fortunate to have the chance to be exposed to traditional ceremonies. He added that the sweat lodge not just helped him abstain from drugs, but it helped him get through the challenges of transitioning out of his previous lifestyle.

“Once you get out of that bubble of the treatment centre or the halfway house or the prison … it’s challenging,” said Ballard, 38. “It’s challenging to create a good and safe environment for yourself.”

In honor of an elder

After completing his addiction treatment at Alcare Place, Ballard attended a sweat lodge each week for 12 months.

He said getting training and finding a job was hard at first, though Peters’ teachings helped keep him on the right path, and he now works as a continuing care assistant at Northwood long-term care home.

Ballard said there was a time he would never be good enough to have children, but today, he has two kids. His son is named Emmet, in honor of the elder who had a major impact on Ballard’s life.

Condo said one of the proper things regarding healing is if individuals can find their own courage and pride, they can then share it with other people.

“All the wrongs that I did, I don’t go back and dwell on it,” Condo said. “I take all my wrongs and I wonder how I can show somebody else about my past and make them not have to do that wrong. Maybe save them five years of prison, maybe save them being hooked on OxyContin or heroin.

“Give them hope. That’s what I’m about. I’m about hope.”

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