Canadian prisons currently provide their indigenous inmates with arts programs that help them connect with their cultural identity, but Australia has taken that idea one step further.

Correctional Service Canada offers art programs at 43 of their institutions. Those programs are designed to address the needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit offenders. These programs are often combined with counseling and workshops. In Australia, a similar program runs in all prisons in the country. Advocates in Canada think it would be a good idea to implement a similar plan here.

The programs in Canada are run by the community and inmates. Prison staff provides supplies to the inmates so they can participate in those programs. At the same time, inmates that are more advanced in the arts help teach newer artists to create work that is part of their culture.

The inmates are given the chance to create a variety of indigenous traditional artwork. Sara Parkes from Correctional Service Canada said in an email, “Initiatives involve the creation of wall murals, beadwork, earrings, lanyards, moccasins, sweatshirts with logos, drawings/sketches/paintings, key chains, carvings, tipis, drums, and much more.”

The cultural artwork programs are extremely beneficial. Katelyn Lucas, the executive director at Elizabeth Fry Society said, “Many of the women [inmates] don’t have a cultural connection to begin with, the program allows them to re-engage with the culture in a safe setting.”

By connecting with their cultural heritage, the Indigenous inmates have a sense of being back in their traditional environment.

“The program gives a calming effect, because they do not feel like they are inmates anymore but artists again,” said Pauloosie Nuyalia, the manager of alternative homes and producer for the Inuit culture skills program.“Many of the women [inmates] don’t have a cultural connection to begin with, the program allows them to re-engage with the culture in a safe setting.” – Katelyn Lucas

These programs not only help the inmates connect with their cultural background, but the artwork created can also be sold at local buildings, correctional facilities and occasional art exhibitions. The proceeds that are made go directly to the artist.

“The art is sold externally, while in other cases it may not be, depending on the initiative. Some examples of what happens to art pieces include them being sold to local vendors/community members,” Sara Parkes said in an email.

When a piece of artwork is sold, the proceeds either go to the community, back into the art program, pay for supplies, or to the artist, allowing them to use the proceeds as they please.

“The money will go into the [inmates] account. An individual account in which they would purchase canteens within facilities,” said Chris Stewart, the manager of capital and special projects.

Across every institution and federal prison inmates must pay for their own groceries and supplies. Having the extra profits is very beneficial for the inmates. In some institutions, the proceeds can be used to help support the inmates’ family financially.

However, not every institution or federal prison in Canada has all of these benefits. Some institutions don’t even have a cultural arts program. Others don’t display the artwork in exhibitions. Some don’t even allow the inmates to send their proceeds to financially support their families.

After asking Sarah Parkes about an indigenous cultural arts program that is included in each federal prison and institution across Canada, she said, “Unfortunately, one does not currently exist.”

This means not every Indigenous inmate within Canada can connect with his or her culture, promote their artwork, or be able to earn money and support their family while still incarcerated.

This is where Australia comes in. The Torch Project, which is located in the state of Victoria, is like the cultural arts programs here in Canada. However, they have taken it one step further, by including the program in every institution and federal prison in the state.

The Torch Project includes three core activities in every federal prison in the state. In the first activity, Indigenous inmates get to work one-on-one or in groups with an Indigenous leader, learning about their cultural heritage, language, and background.

The second component involves the creation of artwork that is displayed in an annual art exhibition, allowing the artists to not only promote their work but redefine themselves with mainstream society. The final activity takes place after the inmate is released; they are given the opportunity to continue with the program and are taught skills on how to succeed in the arts community.

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Advocates in Canada believe including activities that are similar to The Torch Project in the federal prisons and institutions would be beneficial to Canada and the Indigenous inmates.

“The institution doesn’t currently allow the money made to help support the families, that would be really beneficial to the women,” says Lucas.

Chris Stewart says, “You know what, exhibitions [are] not a bad idea. Public really enjoy buying it from the facilities. And artists that are able to meet with the public would be beneficial long term, since, in a few short weeks they will be creating artwork from their homes, allowing them to make sales when they get back home.”

Editor: Amber McLinden |

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