PARRY SOUND - The honour may have gone to one man, but it was really for all the people he was able to help over the years.
Vincent Pawis, a spiritual and cultural leader out of Nobel, was awarded the highest honour given out in the province - the Order of Ontario. Pawis was recognized for his decades of service to the community, working with youth at risk in the corrections system and his work on developing a different kind of parole hearing for First Nation offenders.
“This award is for all the individuals who we’ve helped in the process - this is not about me,” said Pawis. “The way I was taught, is we don’t look for recognition and acknowledgment. It’s about all the people over the last 25 years who I have been able to assist in their recovery.”
Pawis was one of only 25 people given the award at the Queen’s Park ceremony. Among the other inductees were film director Deepa Mehta, and Shaf Keshavjee, who is a world leader in lung transplantation.
The award was given out at the legislative building in Queen’s Park by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley. Pawis said he was honoured to be given the award alongside so many exceptional individuals.
“It was pretty moving and pretty exciting to be acknowledged for the work I’ve done over the last 25 years within the prison system and the community. Somebody nominated me from the community, and to be selected one of 25 people in the province of Ontario, that was a big thing for me,” Pawis said.
Over the course of his time working in corrections, Pawis has had a significant impact on the way things are done. He was instrumental in the development of a variety of programs that aim to support Aboriginals in the system.
One such program is for the re-integration of Aboriginal youth coming out of both open and closed custody. The young people are taken to a weekend camp in Shawanaga, where the goal is to help restore their identity.
“It’s mainly culturally-based teachings and ceremonies and reconnecting them to the land, the animals, the water, the air and the fire. We want to give them back the identity of who they are as native people,” said Pawis.
The drive to assist the at-risk youth came from his work in the adult correctional institutions. Pawis noticed a pattern that he hoped to end before it became even more destructive.
“What I saw in the adult institutions is I was working with a generation of people and then coming behind them was their children. What I thought was I needed to start to work with the younger people before they get too entrenched in the system and see if I can reach them,” Pawis said.
Another program he was instrumental in developing is known as the Elder Assisted Aboriginal Circle parole hearings. Created in response to an observation that there weren’t a lot of native women applying for parole, Pawis wanted to change the standard parole hearing to better reflect First Nation traditions.
In an Elder Assisted Circle Hearing, everyone is equal, everyone is heard and the participants sit in a circle – a stark difference from a standard parole hearing where the parole board is sitting behind a desk.
“I had to train the parole board and do cross-cultural training with them. Then, I also had to train the elders on the expectation on their role to assist the parole board,” said Pawis. “These are held in the institution inside tepees.”