“Our goal is to create a loving, safe place for Indigenous women,” says Patti Pettigrew, President of the board of Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society. “We want to help them find wholeness and balance.”
Disproportionate rates of incarceration and a lack of support and services in the corrections system and post-release have led to difficulties for some Indigenous Women. TWHL aims to reduce their rate of recidivism through cultural support and transitional housing, with the goal of advancing healing, rehabilitation and meaningful reintegration. “Access to affordable housing with adequate supports is very cost-effective – and it also provides the tools necessary for capacity-building and healing,” says Patti.
With a future home in Scarborough, TWHL will be the first lodge of its kind in Ontario. Currently there are only two Indigenous-owned healing lodges for women in Canada, and they’re in B.C. and Alberta. “Toronto has the largest Indigenous population in Ontario, and Scarborough has the largest in Toronto,” says Patti Pettigrew, president of the board at TWHL. “Many incarcerated women in Ontario are released into Toronto – and we need to provide our services where they are.”
Before her work with TWHL, Patti worked at the Elizabeth Fry Society, which runs programs for all women leaving the justice system. That’s when she realized that the unique needs of Indigenous women offenders were not being met. “If you don’t understand the history, you can’t address the systemic issues that have placed these women in the situations that they’re in,” says Patti, who has worked as a Gladue Writer in the justice system for many years and helped develop TWHL’s innovative programming. “Our goal at TWHL is to help these women find housing and support – but we’re also helping restore their cultural identities.”
That cultural support forms the core of TWHL’s work. Women will have access to Elders, who offer cultural knowledge and can administer traditional healing techniques such as sweat lodges. They’ll each have their own case worker and access to counselling, as well as life skills and financial literacy education.
Along with transitional housing, the lodge will have four beds for women on parole from federal institutions, four beds for women leaving provincial institutions, and four beds for women before the courts seeking bail. TWHL will be a social enterprise, too, running a retail store to provide the residents with employment and help them build their resumes.
A key step on the journey to building the lodge was acquiring a piece of land in Scarborough. TWHL had secured government support for their programming, but first they had to build – and they didn’t have enough money to buy the lot. They needed bridge financing and, as happens with many non-profits, they were having trouble getting funding. That’s when Patti reached out to BMO, who went on to finance the land purchase.
“I can’t speak highly enough of our experience with BMO. We were dealing with another lending institution, and I found them to be patronizing and controlling. They really treated us like we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Patti. “And when we went to BMO, the difference was like night and day. BMO really stepped up to the plate and worked with us. They heard us, they saw the vision, and they’ve been nothing but respectful and accommodating.”
BMO’s Dan Adams and Sean Murphy were thrilled when TWHL approached them. “They had all this government support and buy-in, but they were stuck. We understood the challenges they were experiencing, and also how important their mission is. We made the case that even though this isn’t how banks normally go about this process, we felt strongly that it was the right thing to do.”
“We got the deal for the land done – and that was just the first step,” says Dan. “This work is so important, and we want to do anything we can to facilitate it. During conversations about how we can help, Sean and I kept saying to each other that this is exactly what growing the good is all about – and that our work doesn’t get any more purposeful than this.”
Dan and Sean are also looking forward to working with TWHL on programming such as financial literacy training. “We are on a long journey with them – and we really do want to help,” says Dan.
“Dan and Sean really recognized how needed this project is, and they’ve been right on board with us the entire way,” says Patti. “I’ve had some bad experiences at banks before, and BMO has turned that right around.”
TWHL is now finalizing the building design with their architects. The plan is to break ground later this year, and to have the lodge completed by 2021. Says Patti, “We’re on our way, and we couldn’t have done it without BMO.”
Read more about Indigenous banking at BMO here.
Read more about financial products, services, employment and scholarships for Indigenous communities here.
Note: the photo above was taken in 2019.