Inmates offered First Nation heritage classes

The first session of a new First Nations heritage program has just wrapped up at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, and the lead instructor calls it a big success. "It went really, really well," said Susan Moorhead Mooney.

The first session of a new First Nations heritage program has just wrapped up at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, and the lead instructor calls it a big success.

“It went really, really well,” said Susan Moorhead Mooney. “It exceeded expectations.”

Mooney is the instructor and co-ordinator for Yukon College’s Heritage and Cultural Essential Skills, or HACES, program. Ten-week sessions have run since 2009 in Mayo, Ross River, Pelly Crossing, Dawson City, Carcross, Teslin and Whitehorse. Last month, Mooney brought the program to the prison for the first time.

The idea behind the HACES program, said Mooney, “is to build capacity to manage, interpret and celebrate First Nations heritage resources.”

Students complete a series of modules designed to improve their reading, writing and oral communication, and to introduce them to the heritage resource sector. The goal is to help students to become stewards of their own heritage.

This could mean working as tour guides at museums or cultural centres in the communities, as game guardians, or to help First Nations collect oral histories.

When the HACES program runs in the communities, its modules are often targeted specifically at local culture and history, but at the prison, the adapted program was pan-Yukon. The program was also condensed to four weeks, running Monday to Friday from 8:30 to 4, to allow inmates with short sentences to participate. Nine inmates registered for the initial program, with six completing it – the other three were released partway through.

“I think the program was really well received by the students,” said Mooney. “It was something that they signed up for, that they decided they wanted to do,” as opposed to being mandatory programming. “Because of that, they took full ownership of it. They came to class on time, they did the homework they had to do, and the classwork they had to do, and it really paid off in the end.”

Logistics was a challenge. At the prison, things like family visits, court dates and meetings with lawyers occur on a fixed timeline, regardless of the class schedule. Mooney and her lineup of guest instructors structured the modules to be discrete, so that a student who missed a day or two would be able to jump right back in.

The students began with general concepts – with modules like “What IS Culture?” and “Community Heritage Basics” – and then moved into coursework on Yukon land claims, traditional knowledge, and skills sessions focused on project management, computer use, and research techniques.

Their final project was the creation of a poster or pamphlet about a particular heritage resource. One group focused on the stone sheep found in Teslin Tlingit Council traditional territory, while another tackled the history of the Canol Road.

Mooney hopes that the program will help build connections between the inmates and the college. “The idea is to wrap services around the offender while they are in the correctional centre and then to move them out into the communities surrounded by that,” she said. “HACES fits into this because it really gets the students thinking about themselves, as someone who they used to be or who they want to be, and in the interest area that they’re passionate about… And then the idea is, they’ve already got a connection to the college, then they’re set up very well to come up and be part of life here. The idea is to bring in the support that these folks need when they get out. Because, they say, they just don’t have enough.”

The course was designed to allow inmates to also complete the 10-week program in their home communities after their release, without too much repetition or crossover.

The new offering at the WCC is just one part of an expanded First Nations-focused program at the centre. The Department of Justice announced this week that a First Nations Reintegration Program, created in partnership with the Council of Yukon First Nations, is also in the works.

A second session of the WCC HACES program begins on Tuesday, November 12, and runs until December 11. Eleven inmates have registered for the second offering.