Reintegration in the community

Mistissini Lake Picnic Areas Reconditioning Project

Corrections Fund

Jim MacLeod, the first policeman in Mistissini and retired Police Chief, knows well the reality that detainees face when they get out of detention and come back home. It is difficult for them to reintegrate in the community and to get a job.

With his sons Larry and Clifford, Jim decided that they could help out. While the father had experience with making communities feel safe, one son had experience working with youth and the other knew carpentry and navigation. They had all the necessary expertise, skills, and the idea, to apply for the Corrections Fund.

They set up the Mistissini Lake Picnic Area Reconditioning project. The MacLeod’s objective was to allow ex-detainees to acquire a positive work experience that would allow them to demonstrate that, despite their difficult past, they had the ability to work and be productive, while learning new skills during the project, and give back to the community.

Of course, as the name of the project indicates, there was some cleaning up of the picnic area, building of picnic tables and painting, but also much more. Through this initiative, the participants were given the opportunity to reconnect with Cree values and culture: until the cold came, they had to camp out, set up tents, cook and live the traditional way. For some participants, it was the first time in many years.

Throughout this healing process, they were accompanied. Elders shared stories about the past and how much things have changed. The participants were shown traditional skills, like building teepees. Youth came to work with them. When needed, they were educated on everyday skills, such as managing their money in a way that would allow them to wait for the next pay.

As Jim says: “Working with detainees is different. You need to understand how to speak to them and how to treat them. You need to gain their trust, by talking to them, by letting them open up to what they have on their mind and what they experience”. In short, the participants need to feel that they are not pushed away and that they are accepted.

When it was not possible to work at the lake due to weather condition, participants would do work in the community, displaying Cree values in actions. For example, they would shovel the driveway or backdoors of older people. One of the participants mentioned to Jim how touched he was when one of the Elders he helped warmly thanked him for his work and told him that a long time ago, youth used to do that regularly for older people. The fact that older people seem to really accept and welcome the contribution of the detainees gave participants a true sense of pride!

As a matter of fact, the anecdotes that Jim likes to share about the project demonstrate that simple actions can make a real difference and can provide opportunities for people to connect. It is by building relationships and giving the ex-detainees a sense of purpose that reintegration can take place. The project was about engaging the participants by listening, and it was an opportunity for participants to give back something positive to the community. It is about accepting responsibility, giving back and the start of them reintegrating back into their communities and families.

The reaction to the Mistissini Lake Picnic Areas Reconditioning Project was very positive. The Band Council felt that it helped participants reintegrate the community. Also, the project contributed to change the perception that the general public has of ex-detainees. Furthermore, the vast majority of participants succeeded and felt the experience was rewarding. Some would like to take part in another project of the same nature.

Jim and his sons also found the experience rewarding, so much so that he is considering leading a new initiative. He does not know yet exactly what it will be, but he is looking for new ideas for a project that would help prevent crime or rehabilitate Cree offenders.

When asked ‘What are the most important qualities to have for an applicant?’, Jim MacLeod answers that an open heart is needed as well as having a real concern about what you see. Applicants need to have a sense of the importance of the work they are trying to do and the role of the Justice Department in making Eeyou Istchee even safer. He also lists faith, in the sense of believing in the capability of the participants to go the right way if given a hand.

These are certainly qualities that we recognise in Jim and his boys!