Upon arriving, new inmates are inducted into the prison with
traditional Aboriginal expressions of hospitality. They are given
blankets as a sign of peace and protection and shown around the place
so they know it is their home rather than their cage. Inmates and staff
alike join together to welcome the new arrivals. The goal is an
atmosphere where people are allowed to become human again, reconnect
with their emotions, and come to terms with the implications of their
One woman who works there,
affectionately referred to as Grandma by everyone at the prison, states
that her role is to give the men unconditional love and separate them
from the stigma of their crimes. The men repay the love in full;
one scene shows an inmate delivering her a breakfast that he had
specially made for her.
We meet nineteen inmates, each with a
different story. The director introduces us to them one by one, showing
them at work they love to do. One man, while dipping in and out of
prison over several decades, decided he wanted to learn how to carve
wood and now he carves traditional Aboriginal masks. Another paints
drums. Another makes dreamcatchers, another bakes (remarking that while
baking he does not have to think about “jail things” but rather what
the men might like for dessert), another builds wooden toy cars.
staff at Kwikwexwelhp tries to teach the inmates how to become
their own agents and use their time productively without harming either
themselves or anyone around them. We see the inmates first as craftsmen
and as they create, they tell us about their murders, drug addictions,
and sexual offenses.
They also talk about their lives, both the
circumstances in their families that led to their involvement in
criminal culture, and about their experiences rocketing around the
criminal system in Canada. Many come from homes of abuse, physical and
sexual. Many were taught to hate their Aboriginal heritage and
experienced terrible abuse and racism because of their ethnicity. Many
grew up in foster care or with negligent parents.
men show varying levels of emotion as they express remorse for their
crimes and talk about the trauma that the prison system has visited
upon them. One man, Rod, describes the way that the prison system
perpetuates criminal violence by teaching the inmates to become
“unconscious in their conscience.” Another, Darcy, breaks down and
cries as he talks about how he cannot let the lives he took while in a
drug-induced haze be in vain. The inmates know their own culpability in
ending up in the criminal system but they also know how hard it is,
once involved, to break out of it.
The stories of the men are
intensely moving and by showing us who they are as people instead of
focusing exclusively on their crimes, it serves as a reminder that
justice does not deal with monsters and freaks. The men who commit
crimes are as human as their victims.
Plenty of extra features on the
DVD provide longer interviews with the inmates as well as reflections
on criminal justice and Aboriginal practices. The documentary moves
fluidly between aspects of life at Kwixwekwelhp with the men serving as
regular commentators on the topic at hand. Always central is a
focus on the humanity of everyone involved with the prison.
At the end
of the documentary they do follow-ups on what happened to some of the
inmates. The stories do not always end well. Some of the inmates are
released, some violate their parole and are incarcerated again, and
some are transferred to higher-security prisons after breaking rules.
It is an important reminder that change is a long process. But at
Kwixwelhp, transformation remains the goal.
“The Meaning of Life” is available from Face-to-Face Media at a cost of $small institutions, and $250 for major institutions.
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