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An Oral History of MOA’s “Prison Program”: An Interview with Reva Malkin

When the Museum of Anthropology opened in its current location in 1976, requests began to come in from Indigenous inmates, many of whom were members of Native Brotherhood clubs, for photographs and slides of belongings and other objects from the MOA Collection that would help them learn more about their cultural histories and practices. Michael Ames, the Museum’s director at the time, spoke with a former anthropology student of his, Reva Malkin, to discuss what MOA could do to respond to such requests. Their conversation spurred Reva to develop and coordinate a cultural outreach program for prisons, beginning in 1981, which became a 16-yearlong association between MOA, UBC, Reva and the Canadian correctional system.

MOA’s Aboriginal Cultural Program—known internally as the “prison program”—was eventually offered in every federal correctional institution in British Columbia during that period. According to MOA’s archival records about the program, some members of the Native Brotherhood clubs missed the connections they had had to Elders outside the institutions, and were seeking opportunities to be immersed in, and learn more about, their cultures. At a time when Indian residential schools and the Sixties Scoop were ongoing, and generations of Indigenous people had been separated from their communities, MOA’s program was a pioneer in helping to support new opportunities for cultural reconnection for Indigenous inmates.

The story of this program is relevant today amid social movements to defund police, and as the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons reaches new heights. In 2020, Canada’s prison ombudsman found that more than 30 percent of all people incarcerated in Canada are Indigenous, even though Indigenous people make up only five percent of the country’s population. As Maclean’s Magazine published in 2016, “Criminologists have begun quietly referring to Canada’s prisons and jails as the country’s ‘new residential schools.’”

In this interview, Reva Malkin—who is now a MOA Volunteer Associate, since 2015—speaks about the creation of the program, its impact, and what she learned over her decades-long career working with Indigenous people in the correctional system.

MOA: What did MOA’s “prison program” offer? 

Artist and author Hilary Stewart (left) and other visitors look at art projects underway at the Regional Psychiatric Centre – Matsqui, November 1986. Photo by Jacqueline Gijssen.

Reva: At first, the program was offered a couple evenings a week at a couple of federal prisons. For every session, I organized a First Nations presenter or teacher to accompany me, to teach or to present a topic related to Indigenous culture. At the beginning, a number of Elders participated, including Leonard George (Tsleil-Waututh), Christine Daniels (Cree), Ann Johnson (Cree) and Frank Malloway (Sto:lo). They shared stories, taught languages, or just spent the evening visiting with the men. Not long after that, we incorporated hands-on programming: silk-screening, carving, making drums and dream catchers, learning beadwork. The artists who came to teach included Lyle Wilson (Haisla), Norman and Robert Tait (Nisga’a), Mitchell Morrison (Nisga’a),Joanne Cook (Cree) and Clarence Wells (Gitxsan). Many of them came for years; they were excellent teachers.

Interestingly, I think the teachers had the same function as Elders. They were all people who were pretty connected to their cultures and communities in some way or another, and the men who were in prison really wanted more of those connections to Elders and to their cultures. The workshops gave the men something to do—and  something they wanted to do. And I know it was important to them, because it spread through the Native Brotherhood clubs at the different institutions. The Native Brotherhood was a social and cultural club for Indigenous men in prison. The Brothers, as they called themselves, would elect a president, have cultural events, and organize pow wows.

A Brotherhood that wanted the program would call me and I would go to one of their meetings. The Brothers would tell me what they wanted, and then I’d try to include their particular institution as part of the program. By the end, we were in every federal institution in BC.

MOA: Did you have any goals for what participants would get from the program?

Reva: I don’t remember seeing it in a larger context, except that it was something they obviously related to and really wanted. Recently, I had a chance to talk to Alvin Kube; he was an Aboriginal Project Officer and he came in when MOA’s contract to operate the program ended in the 1990s. It was wonderful to hear him say that the program was a “pioneering effort” and that “it started giving the Brothers something to relate to.” Apparently, the MOA program was the first to bring Indigenous culture into prisons in the Pacific region. He also said that, “Overall, the program made a difference in getting things rolling” for Indigenous programming within Correctional Services Canada in the Pacific region.

Many of the inmates had become pretty disconnected from their cultures, some from birth, and really responded to the opportunity to connect with their cultures and their Elders. It gave that group something to gather around. The teachers were very important because they were role models. It was meaningful to the men to have contact with the people and the crafts and the camaraderie of spending an evening together and with whoever was there teaching. Even people who weren’t necessarily doing a project would just come and hang out.

MOA: After the MOA program ended, you became an Aboriginal Liaison Officer for Correctional Services Canada. What did you continue to learn in your role as an ALO?

Reva Malkin (back) and a program participant concentrate during a class taught by Nisga’a carver Norman Tait, Mountain Institution, January 1987. Photo by Jacqueline Gijssen.

Reva: The job of an ALO is quite different than what I was doing as part of the MOA program. As an ALO, I was much more involved in what was going on for each individual inmate. I’m not Indigenous myself, and ALOs are typically Indigenous, but my job was to try to keep the guys in touch with their families, their communities and their institutional parole officers. There was a range of men and a wide range of reasons for their incarceration. The huge percentage of First Nations guys in all the institutions is an issue people are talking about and looking into these days, and hopefully some things will change— but it was pretty shocking. The rate of overrepresentation has exploded. I saw it grow while I was there.

A positive change was that, by the end of my career, we had a building at Pacific Institution in the Matsqui Complex just for Indigenous programs, including a sweat lodge in the back. I also organized for Sto:lo/Semiahmoo (Coast Salish) artist Stan Greene to carve welcome figures for the entryway. We consulted with Bev Julian, an Elder from the Matsqui Reserve, regarding the naming of the building. Bev, a Halq’emeylem speaker, proposed “Huli Tun” (a place of healing). We held a naming ceremony with many guests and Bev conducted it. The building became used by the whole region for special events. I felt, and still feel, very proud of the design and utility of that building. That was a big accomplishment.

Top banner photo credit: Artist and author Hilary Stewart makes a presentation to program participants at the Regional Psychiatric Centre – Matsqui, November 1986. Photo by Jacqueline Gijssen.