Saskatchewan’s first federal minimum security penitentiary for aboriginal men is officially open.

The Willow Cree Healing Lodge on the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation Reserve aims to prepare offenders for reintegration into society through Native spiritual and cultural interventions.

It’s been about 15 years in the making, and officials say the lodge can address the disproportionate number of aboriginal people incarcerated in federal prisons.

According to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), 39 per cent of federal offenders in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the North West Territories and northwestern Ontario are of aboriginal descent.

The goal is to help offenders become law-abiding, productive citizens. “We have a vision of creating a healthy aboriginal community,” said Garnet Eyahpaise, chief of Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation.

Solicitor general of Canada Wayne Easter and commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), Lucie McClung, oversaw the opening ceremony.

Drums pounded and aboriginal dancers led the dignitaries in a grand march after a traditional pipe ceremony. Elders, veterans, and First Nations leaders also took part in the event at the 40-bed facility, located on a 30-hectare area 90 kilometres north of Saskatoon, near Duck Lake.

“We know the jails are filled by our people,” said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, during the ceremony. “That’s not right,” he said, adding high social costs will continue is the existing situation isn’t corrected. “There need to be a change in that justice system.”

A similar facility for women in Saskatchewan houses 28 women on the Nekeneet First Nation in the Cypress Hills. A healing lodge for 60 male offenders is located near Hobbema, Alta., on the Samson Cree Nation.