Carefoot Continues to Help Aboriginal Inmates

Claire Carefoot is the founding director of the Buffalo Sage Healing Centre, and a Global Woman of Vision.

Claire Carefoot


Claire Carefoot developed a strong sense of justice as a young age.  When American race issues were making news in the 1960s, Carefoot, a Grade 9 student at the time, wrote a speech about discrimination against blacks that won a school award.  But, little did she know abut the injustices committed against Canadian aboriginal people within the walls of the residential schools her family drove by every summer on their way to the cabin. 

Now, Carefoot is the founding Director of the Buffalo Sage Healing Centre, Canada's first minimum-security prison for aboriginal inmates who come from the Edmonton Institution for Women to serve the last six months of their sentences. The mandate is to prepare the women for release and re-integration into society. The focus is on healing.

"These women have been so victimized," says Carefoot.  "Every day you hear stories that break your heart."  

Very few of these women come from middle-class backgrounds.  Many have lived and/or worked on the streets. Some have made bad choices.

"One of them has been here 20 years, so we're trying to de-institutionalize her," says Carefoot.  "One of them went into the social welfare system when she was 6 or 7 because her mother was deemed unfit. She went from the social system into the prison system and she's never been out on the street on her own. Another inmate’s mother and sister are on the streets. Her dad's an alcoholic and her brother's a schizophrenic. She's the strongest member of her family and she's here. Those are the kinds of women we're trying to help."

Buffalo Sage is run by Native Counselling Service of Alberta under Section 81 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which allows the aboriginal organization to run its own correctional facility.  There are no bars on the windows or doors of the 16-bed prison, and it's housed in a secret, unmarked location in a residential Edmonton neighbourhood. Security measures like alarms and cameras on the doors and screens are meant not as much to keep the women in, but to keep others out.

"It's to keep the women safe," says Carefoot.  "I don't want the pimps and drug dealers or anyone these women have worked with to know where we are.  I don't want anyone in here to get hurt."  

At age 16, Carefoot fell in love with "the cutest boy in Swift Current, Saskatchewan" and wanted to escape her turbulent home environment by getting married.  But when her father forbade it, she took him to court and won, becoming a ward of the court, which granted her permission to marry

“At the time, it was very difficult,” says Carefoot, who has now been married for 48 years.  “We had to grow up and we had only each other to rely on.  But afterwards, I had to thank him for that, because it made me a stronger person.”

After moving to a small town in Alberta, Carefoot served on town council while raising three boys and working full-time as a real estate agent.  Then she met Joe Clark while door knocking for his campaign to become prime minister.  He and his wife, the then-controversial feminist Maureen McTeer, became friends and mentors, with Carefoot running his election campaign locally.  Later, she was appointed to the National Parole Board and introduced to native spirituality at her first retreat at Nakoda Lodge.  She'd never been involved with anything like it.

"We did a fast and we built our own sweat.  Seven female friends went into the sweat.  Seven sisters came out.  It actually changed my life," says Carefoot. "When I work here, I bet I pray more times a day than anybody would ever believe because aboriginal people pray for everything.  They're so spiritual that way."

Carefoot’s first visit to a prison as a member of the parole board was also a life-changing experience.  At the Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, she listened to the story of a young woman who, like Carefoot, had fallen in love with “tall, dark and handsome” at a young age but had run away with him when her parents didn’t approve.  

“It didn’t take her long to find out he was a cocaine addict.  It didn’t take him long to make her a cocaine addict,” Carefoot tells the story.  “Where do they make $1800 a day for their habit?  He had her working the streets.  The only thing she had left of her family was a gold chain necklace.  One day, when another woman went to grab the chain, she just beat her up.  So now our little inmate’s in Prince Albert serving three or four years for assault causing bodily harm.  And I sat there and thought to myself, but for the grace of God, there sits me.  The cute guy I fell in love with turned out to be a pretty good husband and father, but that woman could have been me, could be my children or my grandchildren.  Anybody can make a mistake and end up in prison.

In Alberta, Aboriginal people make up four per cent of the population but account for 38 per cent of the prison population. Corrections Canada recognized the issue, and when the Stan Daniels Healing Centre was opened by Native Counselling Services of Alberta in 1988, it was the first federal corrections facility and healing lodge to be run by an Aboriginal organization.  Carefoot, who had now been on the parole board for 12 years, was very supportive of the pilot project. When she retired from the board a year later, she was asked to become the facility’s managing Director.  Under Carefoot's leadership, the recidivism rate for men released from Stan Daniels dropped significantly, from up to 60 to about 20 per cent.  So when she was asked to open a similar facility for Aboriginal women, Carefoot couldn't say no.  She came out of retirement and spent nearly three years getting the funding, agreements and plans in place for the Buffalo Sage to open in September 2011.  

"We feel you have to heal first before you can go on to live a healthy life," says Carefoot of the centre's cornerstone Warrior program, which was developed at the Stan Daniels centre and became the first program to be taken across the country by Corrections Canada.  "It's a very in-depth program that gets into the guts of people, the pain they experienced as children, the alcoholism and the people who have been left behind.  The women for eight weeks sit with an elder and a program facilitator and work on their childhood trauma. And for many of them, it's a lot of trauma."

Other courses include life skills, parenting and "Quest for Success", where inmates spend three weeks learning how to write resumes, preparing for job interviews and managing potential minefields in the workplace, like how to handle a difficult situation with a boss. They are then given a foot in the door with employers who understand the special circumstances of an employee on parole or on a work release, like curfews and having to call the centre at a specific time every day so the inmate's whereabouts is always accounted for.  

On the beds in the dorms of the inmates are quilts hand-made by Carefoot's quilting guild.  They were given as a gift to each of the first 16 women who first entered the centre, and are theirs to take with them when they leave.

"I said to the guild, the quilts may end up on cocaine row or back in prison," says Carefoot.  "But they said they didn't care. They wanted each of these women to have a quilt because they feel home-made quilts are healing.  And on the back of each quilt is a label saying 'Women helping women.  Know that somebody cares about you.'  There are also sewing machines here for the women to make their own quilts.  One of the girls made her son a quilt for Christmas and he just snuggled in it. He was so happy to have a bit of his mom there."

It costs about $345,000 a year to house a woman in a federal penitentiary, according to Carefoot, compared with $88,000 at Buffalo Sage Healing Healing Centre.  In addition to the substantial financial savings, there are many signs that the program is working.  For example, regular drug testing shows that so far, Buffalo Sage is a clean and sober house. For Carefoot, that's a huge success.

Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series.  Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at